Paleo-data suggest that East African mountain treelines underwent an altitudinal shift during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Understanding the ecological and physiological processes underlying treeline response to such past climate change will help to improve forecasts of treeline change under future global warming. In spite of significant improvements in paleoclimatic reconstruction, the climatic conditions explaining this migration are still debated and important factors such as atmospheric CO2 concentration, the impact of lapse rate decreasing temperature along altitudinal gradients and rainfall modifications due to elevation have often been neglected or simplified. Here, we assess the effects of these different factors and estimate the influence of the most dominant factors controlling changes in past treeline position using a multi-proxy approach based on simulations from BIOME4, a coupled biogeography and biogeochemistry model, modified to account for the effect of elevation on vegetation, compared with pollen, and isotopic data. The results indicate a shift in mountain vegetation at the LGM was controlled by low pCO2 and low temperatures promoting species morphologically and physiologically better adapted to LGM conditions than many trees composing the forest belt limit. Our estimate that the LGM climate was cooler than today's by -4.5 °C (range: -4.3 to -4.6 °C) at the upper limit of the treeline, whereas at 831 m it was cooler by -1.4 °C (range: -2.6 to -0.6 °C), suggests that a possible lapse rate modification strongly constrained the upper limit of treeline, which may limit its potential extension under future global warming.