The composition of the subcontinental lithospheric mantle (SCLM) is broadly related to the tectonothermal age of the overlying crust, suggesting a secular change in SCLM-forming processes. Most estimated compositions of Archean SCLM, based on well-studied suites of xenoliths and xenocrysts, are depleted garnet lherzolites with high orthopyroxene/olivine. However, these compositions make it difficult to account for the high shear-wave velocities measured in the cores of large cratons, and predict deeper geoid anomalies and higher elevations than are observed in most cratons. Global and regional seismic tomography indicates that most cratonic xenolith suites represent material from the lower-velocity margins of lithospheric blocks. This implies that previous compositional estimates are strongly biased toward metasomatized material. We suggest that most Archean SCLM originally consisted of highly depleted dunites/harzburgites, similar to the Archean orogenic massifs of western Norway. Incorporation of such rocks in the cold upper parts of the cratonic SCLM satisfies the seismic and gravity data, suggesting that large volumes of these rocks are preserved in the cores of cratons, but are poorly sampled by volcanic rocks. The roots of most Proterozoic shields probably consist of refertilized Archean SCLM; the juvenile SCLM beneath Proterozoic and Phanerozoic mobile belts reflects only moderate depletion of Primitive Mantle compositions. Rather than a gradual evolution in SCLM-forming processes, we suggest a sharp dichotomy between Archean and younger tectonic regimes. The differences in buoyancy and viscosity between these two types of SCLM have played a major role in the construction, preservation and recycling of continental crust. If originally Archean SCLM is more widespread than currently recognized, models of crustal growth rates and recycling may need to be revised.