Cratonic North America is composed of a cluster of Archaean microcontinents centred on the Canadian shield, and juvenile Proterozoic crust that lies mainly buried beneath the sedimentary cover of the western and southern interior platforms. The shield is underlain by an anomalous low-temperature mantle root that is absent beneath the platform. As there appears to be no systematic difference in crustal thickness or density between the shield and the platform, the long-lived arching of the shield implies an intrinsic buoyancy imparted by the mantle root that more than offsets its colder temperature. Isotopic and seismic anisotropy data indicate an Archaean age for the mantle root, close to the time of formation of the overlying crust. The preferential development of the mantle root beneath Archaean crust is consistent with an origin by imbrication of partly subducted slabs of highly depleted oceanic lithosphere, assuming that buoyant subduction was more common in the Archaean. Formation of the mantle root was not dependent on collisional orogenesis, as has been suggested, but the Archaean cratonic mantle was sufficiently buoyant and refractory to survive later tectonic thickening. The mantle root persists beneath Archaean crust that was transected by mafic dyke swarms and subjected to short-lived episodes of post-orogenic crustal melting, but the root is reduced at mantle plume initiation sites. The partitioning of Archaean and Proterozic crust between the shield and the platform, respectively, causes the shield to misrepresent Precambrian crust as a whole. Studies of the shield falsely conclude that a high percentage of Precambrian crust formed in the Archaean, and that the Proterozoic was characterized by epicontinental volcanism and sedimentation, and crustal `reworking'. Furthermore, the isotopic ratios of detritus eroded from the craton may tend to overestimate the mean age of continental crust.