Many arc lavas are more oxidized than mid-ocean-ridge basalts and subduction introduces oxidized components into the mantle. As a consequence, the sub-arc mantle wedge is widely believed to be oxidized. The Fe oxidation state of sub-arc mantle is, however, difficult to determine directly, and debate persists as to whether this oxidation is intrinsic to the mantle source. Here we show that Zn/Fe(T) (where Fe(T) = Fe(2+)?+?Fe(3+)) is redox-sensitive and retains a memory of the valence state of Fe in primary arc basalts and their mantle sources. During melting of mantle peridotite, Fe(2+) and Zn behave similarly, but because Fe(3+) is more incompatible than Fe(2+), melts generated in oxidized environments have low Zn/Fe(T). Primitive arc magmas have identical Zn/Fe(T) to mid-ocean-ridge basalts, suggesting that primary mantle melts in arcs and ridges have similar Fe oxidation states. The constancy of Zn/Fe(T) during early differentiation involving olivine requires that Fe(3+)/Fe(T) remains low in the magma. Only after progressive fractionation does Fe(3+)/Fe(T) increase and stabilize magnetite as a fractionating phase. These results suggest that subduction of oxidized crustal material may not significantly alter the redox state of the mantle wedge. Thus, the higher oxidation states of arc lavas must be in part a consequence of shallow-level differentiation processes, though such processes remain poorly understood.