The representation of proteins as networks of interacting amino acids, referred to as protein contact networks (PCN), and their subsequent analyses using graph theoretic tools, can provide novel insights into the key functional roles of specific groups of residues. We have characterized the networks corresponding to the native states of 66 proteins (belonging to different families) in terms of their core–periphery organization. The resulting hierarchical classification of the amino acid constituents of a protein arranges the residues into successive layers – having higher core order– with increasing connection density, ranging from a sparsely linked periphery to a densely intra-connected core (distinct from the earlier concept of protein core defined in terms of the three-dimensional geometry of the native state, which has least solvent accessibility). Our results show that residues in the inner cores are more conserved than those at the periphery. Underlining the functional importance of the network core, we see that the receptor sites for known ligand molecules of most proteins occur in the innermost core. Furthermore, the association of residues with structural pockets and cavities in binding or active sites increases with the core order. From mutation sensitivity analysis, we show that the probability of deleterious or intolerant mutations also increases with the core order. We also show that stabilization centre residues are in the innermost cores, suggesting that the network core is critically important in maintaining the structural stability of the protein. A publicly available Web resource for performing core–periphery analysis of any protein whose native state is known has been made available by us at http://www.imsc.res.in/ ~ sitabhra/proteinKcore/index.html.