Stratified lakes are important reservoirs of microbial diversity and provide habitats for niche differentiation of Archaea. In this study, we used a lipid biomarker/DNA-based approach to reveal the diversity and abundance of Archaea in the water column of Lake Challa (East Africa). Concentrations of intact polar lipid (IPL) crenarchaeol, a specific biomarker of Thaumarchaeota, were enhanced (1 ng l−1) at the oxycline/nitrocline. The predominance of the more labile IPL hexose-phosphohexose crenarchaeol indicated the presence of an actively living community of Thaumarchaeota. Archaeal 16S rRNA clone libraries revealed the presence of thaumarchaeotal groups 1.1a and 1.1b at and above the oxycline. In the anoxic deep water, amoA gene abundance was an order of magnitude lower than at the oxycline and high abundance (∼ 90 ng l−1) of an IPL with the acyclic glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraether (GDGT-0) was evident. The predominance of archaeal 16S rRNA sequences affiliated to the uncultured crenarchaeota groups 1.2 and miscellaneous crenarchaeotic group (MCG) points to an origin of GDGT-0 from uncultured crenarchaeota. This study demonstrates the importance of thermal stratification and nutrient availability in the distribution of archaeal groups in lakes, which is relevant to constrain and validate temperature proxies based on archaeal GDGTs (i.e. TEX86).