Mystery of the Skeleton Lake

In 1942, during the Second World War, located in a remote valley deep in the Himalayas. At an altitude of over 5,000 metres (16,500ft) above sea level, Hari Kishan Madhwal, an Indian ranger stumble upon a small glacial lake with something strange looking under the clear water. Apparently, at the bottom of the lake was filled with human skeletons. Thus, he had discovered Roopkund Lake also known as the 'Skeleton Lake'.

Human Skeletons from Roopkund Lake (Image Credit: The News)

Every summer, hundreds of ancient bones emerge from the ice. Anthropologists have known about Roopkund Lake for several decades, but little was known about the provenance of its skeletons.

Local authorities feared that the remains were those of Japanese soldiers who tried to infiltrate British-controlled India. However, around 500 human skeletons were too old to be estimated as remains of Japanese soldiers. In the decades that followed, various theories tried to explain why the mysterious bones were there. Some say the remains belonged to ancient Indian soldiers returning across the mountains from fighting. Others said they were victims of the plague.

Roopkund lake (Image Credit: Atish Waghwase-New York Times)

The extreme hail storm was also to blame. A local folk song hums the story of a group of uncivilized people walking near the Hindu shrine in the Himalayas. The song describes a royal procession during the Raj Jat—a pilgrimage held in the region every 12 years to worship the goddess Nanda Devi—that defiled the holy landscape with dancing girls. Angered by their behavior, the goddess is said to have thrown a magical ball - as hard as iron - at them.

Goddess Nanda Devi (Image Credit: Pinterest)

Even though it was 'just' a folk song, some of the bones that were investigated did bear signs of trauma from being crushed by round solid objects. So far no weapons have been found there but there are religious jewelery and clothes.

Some people also denied that it was a victim of the plague because based on investigations, the skeleton consisting of a mixture of men, women and children was in good health. 

In the early 2000s, preliminary DNA studies had suggested that the people who died at Roopkund Lake were of South Asian ancestry, and radiocarbon dates from around the site cluster at 800 A.D., a sign that they all died in a single event.

Recent DNA samples from 38 examined bones showed that they belonged to 3 genetically different groups. 23 of the bones examined were male and female, descended from contemporary South Asian ancestors and buried in the lake between the 7th and 10th centuries.

The report, published on 2019 in Nature Communications, has led to a “far richer view into the possible histories of this site” than previous efforts provided, said Jennifer Raff, a geneticist and anthropologist at the University of Kansas who was not involved with the work.

Some of the skeletons appear to be more ancient than others, suggesting that many were buried separately in the lake for long periods of time. Then, perhaps about 1,000 years later, between the 17th and 20th centuries, two more genetic groups suddenly appeared in the lake. One individual was of descent related to East Asia and, oddly enough, 14 were of eastern Mediterranean descent.

Then why did a group of people of Eastern Mediterranean descent go that far there? The researchers note that the presence of Roopkund Lake on a route known to modern-day Hindu pilgrims is the reason some South Asians die on their pilgrimage. However, that reason does not really explain the existence of individuals of very distant Eastern Mediterranean descent.

According to the statement of Dr. Cat Jarman, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bristol in England who was not part of the research team, they could not be Mediterranean migrants. The reason is, their ancestors are genetically similar to those of today who came from Greece or to be precise from the island of Crete but the current genetic distribution may not apply to ancient populations.

However, regardless, this group came from somewhere far away and their bones were buried in Roopkund Lake, for reasons unknown. It is also possible, that the site has significance for groups of pilgrims with various religious beliefs. It was also possible that some of the skeletons were brought in for burial, perhaps left in the lake. Or maybe there are unfortunate explorers who want to enjoy the spectacular views of the Himalayas, but are killed by their own curiosity. Until now, the Skeleton Lake, is still a mystery.


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