The composition of the subcontinental lithospheric mantle (SCLM) varies in a systematic way with the age of the last major tectonothermal event in the overlying crust. This secular evolution in SCLM composition implies quasi-contemporaneous formation (or modification) of the crust and its underlying mantle root, and indicates that crust and mantle in many cases have remained linked through their subsequent history. Archean SCLM is distinctively different from younger mantle; it is highly depleted, commonly is strongly stratified, and contains rock types (especially subcalcic harzburgites) that are essentially absent in younger SCLM. Some, but not all, Archean SCLM also has higher Si/Mg than younger SCLM. Attempts to explain the formation of Archean SCLM by reference to Uniformitarian processes, such as the subduction of oceanic mantle (“lithospheric stacking”), founder on the marked differences in geochemical trends between Archean xenolith suites and Phanerozoic examples of highly depleted mantle, such as abyssal peridotites, island-arc xenolith suites and ophiolites. In Archean xenolith suites, positive correlations between Fe, Cr and Al imply that no Cr–Al phase (i.e. spinel or garnet) was present on the liquidus during the melting. This situation is in direct contrast to the geochemical patterns observed in highly depleted peridotites from modern environments, which are controlled by the presence of spinel during melting. It is more likely that Archean SCLM represents residues and/or cumulates from high-degree melting at significant depths, related to specifically Archean processes involving major mantle overturns or megaplumes. The preservation of island-arc like SCLM at shallow levels in some sections (e.g. Slave Craton, E. Greenland) suggests that this specifically Archean tectonic regime may have coexisted with a shallow regime more similar to modern plate tectonics. Preliminary data from in situ Re–Os dating of sulfide minerals in mantle-derived peridotites suggest that much Archean SCLM may have formed in a small number of such major events >3.0 Ga ago. The survival of Archean crust may have been critically determined by the availability of large plugs of very buoyant SCLM (a “life-raft model” of craton formation). Many Archean SCLM sections have been strongly affected by Proterozoic and Phanerozoic metasomatism, and much of the observed secular evolution in SCLM composition, at least through Proterozoic time, may reflect the progressive modification of relict, buoyant Archean lithosphere.