The Turkana people emerged as a distinct ethnic group sometime during the early to middle decades of the nineteenth century. Oral history and archaeological evidence suggest that, prior to A.D. 1500, the ancestors of the Ateker Language Group lived somewhere in the southern Sudan and most likely subsisted as hunting and gathering peoples. After beginning their southern migration, these ancestral peoples incorporated both agricultural and pastoral pursuits, and eventually split into groups that emphasized one subsistence strategy or the other.
The period from 1500 to 1800 appears to have been characterized by frequent splitting and fusing of ethnic groups, and shifting alliances among the groups. During this time, the Karamojong established a distinct identity with a subsistence system based on the raising of livestock, principally cattle, combined with small-scale agriculture.
Oral histories suggest that the Jie seceded from the Karamojong, and that a group split off from the Jie and established themselves in the region near the headwaters of the Tarach River, in what is now Turkana District, sometime during the early part of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Turkana cattle camps began to push down the Tarach in search of new pastures upon which to graze their animals. As they moved westward, the Turkana encountered other pastoral groups, some of which herded camels (most likely the Rendille and Borana). As the Turkana expanded eastward, they began both to assimilate and disperse other groups. They first pushed to the north and east to Lake Turkana, and then to the south, crossing the Turkwell River. It appears that by 1850 the Turkana occupied much of the territory they use today.
The first European to enter into the land of the Turkana was Count Samuel Teleki von Szek, whose expedition reached Turkana in June of 1888. He was preceded by Swahili caravans in search of ivory, which first arrived in 1884. About the same time that the Swahili arrived in the south of Turkanaland, Ethiopian ivory hunters began arriving in the north. Within a few years, there ensued a period of conflict and contestation between the British and the Ethiopians over the colonial domination of the Turkana, which lasted until 1918.
The Turkana resisted British domination of their homeland throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Turkana raiding on their pastoral neighbors, especially against the Pokot to the south, caused large-scale social disruption and influenced the British decision to launch one of the largest military expeditions they ever mounted against an indigenous people. In 1918 a combined force of over 5,000 well-armed men, consisting of Sudanese troops, troops of the Kings African Rifles, and levies composed of warriors from groups antagonistic to the Turkana, launched what came to be known as the Labur Patrol.
The Labur Patrol broke the military might of the Turkana; in 1926 civil administration was reintroduced, and in 1928 taxes were reinstated. The period from 1929 until World War II appears to have been peaceful. Beginning in the 1950s, the Turkana again began to resist British domination, and the British launched a series of military expeditions against the Turkana. The use of occasional military forays against the Turkana was continued by the Kenyan government following independence in 1963.
Development in Turkana District was slow. Only two primary schools operated in the district at the time of independence. During the 1970s major efforts were made to help the Turkana integrate into the larger Kenyan economy; however, antagonistic relations among the Turkana and their neighbors continued, and by the early 1980s the entire district was considered highly insecure. Insecurity combined with two severe droughts in the early 1980s to inhibit development efforts. Despite the growth of settlements, the area remains remote, insecure, and relatively underdeveloped.