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Inherited rheological structures in the lithosphere are expected to have large impact on the architecture of continental rifts. The Turkana depression in the East African Rift connects the Main Ethiopian Rift to the north with the Kenya rift in the south. This region is characterized by a NW-SE trending band of thinned crust inherited from a Mesozoic rifting event, which is cutting the present-day N-S rift trend at high angle. In striking contrast to the narrow rifts in Ethiopia and Kenya, extension in the Turkana region is accommodated in sub-parallel deformation domains that are laterally distributed over several hundred kilometers. We present both analog experiments and numerical models that reproduce the along-axis transition from narrow rifting in Ethiopia and Kenya to a distributed deformation within the Turkana depression. Similarly to natural observations, our models show that the Ethiopian and Kenyan rifts bend away from each other within the Turkana region, thus forming a right-lateral stepover and avoiding a direct link to form a continuous N-S depression. The models reveal five potential types of rift linkage across the pre-existing basin: three types where rifts bend away from the inherited structure connecting via a (1) wide or (2) narrow rift or by (3) forming a rotating microplate, (4) a type where rifts bend towards it, and (5) straight rift linkage. The fact that linkage type 1 is realized in the Turkana region provides new insights on the rheological configuration of the Mesozoic rift system at the onset of the recent rift episode.
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