- SUMMARY We report the results of experiments on the initiation of subduction, using stratified analogue models in a large centrifuge, where the experiments are driven only by the enhanced gravity of the centrifuge without the effect of external lateral stresses. The scaled density of the stratified components resembles that of the asthenosphere and the continental and oceanic lithospheres. The experiments demonstrate that under the effect of enhanced gravity, the layers simulating the oceanic lithosphere detach from the front of the ‘continental lithosphere’ and plunge under it, pushing the more pliable asthenosphere downwards. Simultaneously, the ‘continental lithosphere’ is thrust over the downgoing slab; where friction is low, the ‘continental lithosphere’ extends considerably so that the ‘ductile continental lithosphere’ is exposed in some places. The rate of thrusting of the experimental continental slab over the oceanic one, as well as the amount of extension of the overriding slab and the extent of the rollback of the subduction zone that follows the initial lithospheric detachment, are controlled by friction and density differences between the subducting and the overthrust slabs. The analogue experiments emphasize the role of lateral density variations in incipient subduction and the effect of differential seismic friction along the subduction plane on the evolution of subduction zones, their shape and the evolution of their backarc basins. The morphological resemblance of the experimental results to various subduction systems seems to support their applicability to real subduction systems.