Tertiary sediments around Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana) in the East African Rift Valley have yielded abundant palaeontological and palaeoanthropological remains. The present study provides a basis for interpreting the ancient lake environment and furthering our knowledge of rift valley lacustrine deposits.

Bottom sediments in Lake Rudolf are fine-grained (average 71% clay) well laminated and have montmorillonite, kaolinite and illite as the principal clay minerals. The sediments are relatively poor in silica (40–45%) but rich in Fe2O3 (10%). Both mineral proportions and chemical composition change systematically over the area of the lake and delineate four sedimentological provinces: (1) iron-rich, silty kaolinitic muds (Omo Delta); (2) iron-rich, fine-grained montmorillonite muds (North Basin); (3) silty montmorillonite muds rich in Na2O and K2O (Central Delta); and (4) argillaceous calcite silts (South Basin). Omo Delta and North Basin sediments are derived from the volcanics of the Ethiopian plateau; the source of Central Delta sediments is the Precambrian metamorphic terrain of the rift valley margin; the South Basin has a restricted detrital input.

The water in the lake is alkaline (pH 9.2) and moderately saline (TDS = 2500 p.p.m.). Comparisons with influent water from the Omo River indicate a 200-fold concentration for the lake water. Models based on equilibrium between sediments and water column account for most of the non-conservative chemical components in the lake water.

Sedimentation rates are high (about 1 m per 1000 years) and the dominance of detrital sediments makes Lake Rudolf unusual in comparison with other closed-basin lakes in the African Rift Valley although some similarities with ancient rift valley deposits are suggested.