Tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) suites are the dominant component of Earth's first continents, but their origins are debated. The trace element concentrations of these rocks are conventionally linked to their source depths and inferred geodynamic settings with the implicit assumption that TTG compositions are source-controlled. Alternatively, their variable compositions may be caused by fractional crystallization in TTG plutons after emplacement and less clearly linked to source depth. Most TTGs in Archean mid-crustal exposures are the dominant component of igneous gray gneiss complexes; the processes that influence the evolution of TTG magmas in this setting are poorly understood. We present a petrological–geochemical model that explains the coexistence of TTGs in the middle crust with low-pressure and high-pressure geochemical trends, irrespective of tectonic setting or depth of the TTG source. We propose that mid-crustal TTGs were long-lived crystal mushes with compositions controlled by the separation of early-crystallizing plagioclase and melt. Using phase equilibrium modeling, we demonstrate that a suite of TTGs from the southern Superior Province in Canada represents variably plagioclase-rich and melt-rich fractions from a common parent magma. The behavior of plagioclase may have a strong influence on the geochemical trends of TTGs, including the degree of rare earth element fractionation. Our results suggest that trace element compositions of TTGs may not primarily reflect the depth of the source and cannot be used alone to infer Archean geodynamic settings.

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