The oldest and most stable parts of the continents are known as cratons, after the Greek word for strength κράτο (kratos). All the present continents have at least one craton (Africa and South America have 4 each, and Eurasia 6 or 7). Each has remained unaffected by major deformation for a billion years or more, even during continent-to-continent collisions in which they participated. Almost all cratons began to form during the Archaean Eon before 2500 Ma, but most became rigid long after. Several theories have been suggested to account for their durability, one commonly accepted being that somehow the crust ‘ripened’ so that most of the heat-producing radioactive isotopes of U, Th and K were moved by igneous and metamorphic processes to the uppermost crust, along with water; most cratons expose fragments of anhydrous granulites of tonalitic composition. These bear evidence of having formed at the base of the continental crust and have been heavily depleted in “granitophile” trace elements. As a result they cannot undergo partial melting under normal geothermal conditions and where they remain at great depth are much cooler than younger, deep crust. The other dominant feature of cratonic lithosphere is a mantle portion that is anomalously thick (sometimes down to 250 km); in some cases there is little if any sign of asthenosphere beneath such ‘keels’. Research on rocks brought up from the ‘roots’ of cratons by the kimberlite magmas famous for their diamonds points to that deep mantle itself having conferred great rigidity and thus longevity (Peslier, A.H. et al. 2010. Olivine water contents in the continental lithosphere and the longevity of cratons. Nature, v. 467, p. 78-81).
The presence of water in minerals that make up igneous and metamorphic rocks enables them to begin melting at lower temperatures than their dry equivalents, and also to behave in a more plastic fashion under stress. Anne Peslier of NASA in Houston and her US and German colleagues analysed the minerals in ultramafic mantle rocks dragged upwards by kimberlites that punched through the Kaapvaal craton in southern Africa long after it formed. The dominant mantle mineral is olivine (50-80%), generally thought of as anhydrous but typically containing a few hundred parts per million by weight. Olivines in the Kaapvaal mantle xenoliths become drier with increasing depth of their formation (determined from their mineralogy in which garnet is stable at the deepest levels). At depths around 150-250 km low water content in olivine makes it and the mantle itself 20 to 3000 times stronger than the asthenosphere, which protects it from the underlying flow associated with tectonic motions.
How such root zone of continents may have formed has been addressed by two papers on seismic structure beneath the best studied craton; that of the Canadian Shield (Yuan, H. & Romanowicz, B. 2010. Lithospheric layering in the North American craton. Nature, v. 466, p. 1063-1068; Miller, M.S. & Eaton, D.W. 2010. Formation of cratonic mantle keels by arc accretion: Evidence from S receiver functions. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 37, doi:10.1029/2010GL044366). In the first, Yuan and Romanowicz of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, California use a form of seismic tomography to map anisotropy in the mantle along transects that cross the ancient core of the North American continent. Their results chart the depth of the base of the lithosphere and also define two layers in the lithospheric mantle. The upper layer (down to 150 km) only occurs beneath the Archaean craton, and the top of the asthenosphere ranges from 100-240 km down: at its deepest beneath the craton. The sub-craton mantle they ascribe to chemical depletion of its upper part during early lithospheric evolution, and later addition of the less chemically evolved deeper layer. Miller and Eaton of the Universities of California USA and Calgary Canada used S-wave data from eight seismic stations extending from WSW to ENE over the western cordillera and the Canadian Shield to the Arctic islands of Canada. Their results show a similar variation in dept of the base of the lithosphere and resolve several roughly eastward-dipping boundaries in the sub-craton lithospheric mantle, which they link to Precambrian volcanic arcs preserved in the upper crust above them; i.e. suggesting that the upper layer in the first paper stems from a major episode of arc accretion that built the Canadian Shield.