Rock varnish record of the African Humid Period in the Lake Turkana basin of East Africa

Tanzhuo Liu, Christopher J. Lepre, Sidney R. Hemming, Wallace S. Broecker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Rock varnish is a manganiferous dark coating accreted on subaerially exposed rocks in drylands. It often contains a layered microstratigraphy that records past wetness variations. Varnish samples from latest Pleistocene and Holocene geomorphic features in the Lake Turkana basin, East Africa display a regionally replicable microstratigraphy record of Holocene millennial-scale wetness variability and a broad interval of wetter conditions during the African Humid Period (AHP). Three major wet pulses in the varnish record occurred during the generally wet interval of the early Holocene (11.5–8.5 ka) when the lake attained its maximum high stand (MHS) at 455–460 m. A >23 m drop from the MHS occurred between 8.5 and 8 ka. Subsequently two additional wet pulses occurred during the early to middle Holocene (8–5 ka) when the lake occupied its secondary high stand at 445 m. Collectively, these five wet phases represent an extended wet interval coincident with the AHP in the region. One moderate wet phase occurred during the subsequent climatic transition from the humid to arid regime (5–4.3 ka) after the lake level dropped rapidly from 445 m to <405 m. Five minor wet phases took place during the overall arid period of the late Holocene (4.3–0 ka) when the lake level oscillated below 405 m. These findings indicate that the AHP terminated rapidly around 5 ka in the Turkana basin in terms of lake level drop, but the regional shift in relative humidity from the AHP mode to its present-day condition lagged for about 700 years until 4.3 ka, hinting at a gradual phasing out in terms of moisture condition. These findings further suggest that Lake Turkana overflowed intermittently into the Nile drainage system through its topographic sill at 455–460 m during the early Holocene and has become a closed-basin lake thereafter for the past 8 ky.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1239-1249
Number of pages11
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Archaeology
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


  • African monsoon
  • Holocene climate variability
  • desert varnish
  • microstratigraphy
  • millennial-scale wet event
  • shoreline fluctuation


Dive into the research topics of 'Rock varnish record of the African Humid Period in the Lake Turkana basin of East Africa'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this