Diamonds are formed under high pressure more than 150 kilometres deep in the Earth’s mantle and are brought to the surface mainly by volcanic rocks called kimberlites. Several thousand kimberlites have been mapped on various scales1,2,3,4, but it is the distribution of kimberlites in the very old cratons (stable areas of the continental lithosphere that are more than 2.5 billion years old and 300 kilometres thick or more5) that have generated the most interest, because kimberlites from those areas are the major carriers of economically viable diamond resources. Kimberlites, which are themselves derived from depths of more than 150 kilometres, provide invaluable information on the composition of the deep subcontinental mantle lithosphere, and on melting and metasomatic processes at or near the interface with the underlying flowing mantle. Here we use plate reconstructions and tomographic images to show that the edges of the largest heterogeneities in the deepest mantle, stable for at least 200 million years and possibly for 540 million years, seem to have controlled the eruption of most Phanerozoic kimberlites. We infer that future exploration for kimberlites and their included diamonds should therefore be concentrated in continents with old cratons that once overlay these plume-generation zones at the core–mantle boundary.