How and when continents grew and plate tectonics started on Earth remain poorly constrained. Most researchers apply the modern plate tectonic paradigm to problems of ancient crustal formation, but these are unsatisfactory because diagnostic criteria and actualistic plate configurations are lacking. Here, we show that 3.5-3.2 Ga continental nuclei in the Pilbara Craton, Australia, and the eastern Kaapvaal Craton, southern Africa, formed as thick volcanic plateaux built on a substrate of older continental lithosphere and did not accrete through horizontal tectonic processes. These nuclei survived because of the contemporaneous development of buoyant, nonsubductable mantle roots. This plateau-type of Archean continental crust is distinct from, but complementary to, Archean gneiss terranes formed over shallowly dipping zones of intraoceanic underplating (proto-subduction) on a vigorously convecting early Earth with smaller plates and primitive plate tectonics.