Plate tectonic theory hinges on the concept of a relatively rigid lithosphere moving over a weaker asthenosphere, yet the nature of the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary remains poorly understood. The gradient in seismic velocity that occurs at this boundary is central to constraining the physical and chemical properties that create differences in mechanical strength between the two layers. For example, if the lithosphere is simply a thermal boundary layer that is more rigid owing to colder temperatures, mantle flow models indicate that the velocity gradient at its base would occur over tens of kilometres. In contrast, if the asthenosphere is weak owing to volatile enrichment or the presence of partial melt, the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary could occur over a much smaller depth range. Here we use converted seismic phases in eastern North America to image a very sharp seismic velocity gradient at the base of the lithosphere-a 3-11 per cent drop in shear-wave velocity over a depth range of 11 km or less at 90-110 km depth. Such a strong, sharp boundary cannot be reconciled with a purely thermal gradient, but could be explained by an asthenosphere that contains a few per cent partial melt or that is enriched in volatiles relative to the lithosphere.