The ancient mystery of the Himalayan 'Skeleton Lake'

The ancient mystery of the Himalayan 'Skeleton Lake'
The ancient mystery of the Himalayan 'Skeleton Lake

Nestled in the Indian Himalayas, some 16,500 feet above sea level, sits Roopkund Lake. One hundred and thirty feet wide, it is frozen for much of the year, a frosty pond in a lonely, snowbound valley. But on warmer days, it delivers a macabre performance, as hundreds of human skeletons, some with flesh still attached, emerge from what has become known as Skeleton Lake.

Who were these individuals, and what befell them? One leading idea was that they died simultaneously in a catastrophic event more than 1,000 years ago. An unpublished anthropological survey from several years ago studied five skeletons and estimated they were 1,200 years old.

The remains are strewn around and beneath the ice at the "lake of skeletons", discovered by a patrolling British forest ranger in 1942.

Depending on the season and weather, the lake, which remains frozen for most of the year, expands and shrinks. Only when the snow melts are the skeletons visible, sometimes with flesh attached and well-preserved? To date, the skeletal remains of an estimated 600-800 people have been found here. In tourism promotions, the local government describes it as a "mystery lake".

But a new genetic analysis carried out by scientists in India, America, and Germany has upended that theory. The study, which examined DNA from 38 remains, indicates that there wasn’t just one mass dumping of the dead, but several, spread over a millennium.

The report, published Tuesday 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.

For more than half-a-century anthropologists and scientists have studied the remains and puzzled over a host of questions.

Who were these people? When did they die? How did they die? Where did they come from?

Anthropologists have known about Roopkund Lake for several decades, but little was known about the provenance of its skeletons. Rockslides, migrating ice, and even human visitors have disturbed and moved the remains, making it difficult to decipher when and how the individuals were buried, much less who they were. “In a case like this, that becomes impossible,” said Cat Jarman, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bristol in England who was not part of the research team.

One old theory associates the remains with an Indian king, his wife, and their attendants, all of whom perished in a blizzard some 870 years ago.

Another suggests that some of the remains are of Indian soldiers who tried to invade Tibet in 1841 and were beaten back. More than 70 of them were then forced to find their way home over the Himalayas and died on the way.

Yet another assumes that this could have been a "cemetery" where victims of an epidemic were buried. In villages in the area, there's a popular folk song that talks about how Goddess Nanda Devi created a hail storm "as hard as iron" which killed people winding their way past the lake. India's second-highest mountain, Nanda Devi, is revered as a goddess.

Earlier studies of skeletons have found that most of the people who died were tall - "more than average stature". Most of them were middle-aged adults, aged between 35 and 40. There were no babies or children. Some of them were elderly women. All were in reasonably good health.

Also, it was generally assumed that the skeletons were of a single group of people who died all at once in a single catastrophic incident during the 9th Century.

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The latest five-year-long study, involving 28 co-authors from 16 institutions based in India, US, and Germany, found all these assumptions may not be true.

Scientists genetically analyzed and carbon-dated the remains of 38 bodies, including 15 women, found at the lake - some of them date back to around 1,200 years.

Genetic analysis has helped make some sense of the jumble of bones. The researchers, led in part by Niraj Rai, an expert in ancient DNA at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in India, and David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, extracted DNA from the remains of dozens of skeletal samples, and managed to identify 23 males and 15 females.

Based on populations living today, these individuals fit into three distinct genetic groups. Twenty-three, including males and females, had ancestries typical of contemporary South Asians; their remains were deposited at the lake between the 7th and 10th centuries, and not all at once. Some skeletons were more ancient than others, suggesting that many were interred at the lake lifetimes apart.

Then, perhaps 1,000 years or so later, sometime between the 17th and 20th centuries, two more genetic groups suddenly appeared within the lake: one individual of East Asian-related ancestry and, curiously, 14 people of eastern Mediterranean ancestry.

How all these individuals met their end is anyone’s guess. There’s no evidence of bacterial infections, so an epidemic was probably not to blame. Perhaps the challenging high-altitude environment proved fatal.

The earlier study, of five skeletal samples, found three with unhealed compression fractures, perhaps inflicted by huge hailstones, although that conclusion is open to debate. In any case, across a range of centuries “it’s hard to believe that each individual died in exactly the same way,” said Éadaoin Harney, a doctoral student at Harvard and the lead author on the study.

The individuals included children and elderly adults, but none were family relatives. Chemical signatures from the skeletons indicate that the individuals had significantly different diets, adding support to the notion that several distinct population groups are represented.

If accounts of their journeys exist somewhere, none have been uncovered so far. “We have searched all the archives, but no such records were found,” said Dr. Rai.

The researchers note that Roopkund Lake is situated on a route known to modern-day Hindu pilgrims, so perhaps some of the South Asian individuals died while taking part. But that is less likely to explain the presence of individuals from the distant eastern Mediterranean.

They found that the dead were both genetically diverse and their deaths were separated in time by as much as 1,000 years.

"It upends any explanations that involved a single catastrophic event that lead to their deaths," Eadaoin Harney, the lead author of the study, and a doctoral student at Harvard University, told me. "It is still not clear what happened at Roopkund Lake, but we can now be certain that the deaths of these individuals cannot be explained by a single event."

But more interestingly, the genetics study found the dead comprised a diverse people: one group of people had genetics similar to present-day people who live in South Asia, while the other was "closely related" to people living in present-day Europe, particularly those living in the Greek island of Crete.

Also, the people who came from South Asia "do not appear to come from the same population".

"Some of them have ancestry that would be more common in groups from the north of the subcontinent, while others have ancestry that would be more common from more southern groups," says Ms Harney.

So did these diverse groups of people travel to the lake in smaller batches over a period of a few hundred years? Did some of them die during a single event?

No arms or weapons or trade goods were found at the site - the lake is not located on a trade route. Genetic studies found no evidence of the presence of any ancient bacterial pathogen that could provide disease as an explanation for the cause of death.

A pilgrimage that passes by the lake might explain why people were traveling in the area. Studies reveal that credible accounts of pilgrimage in the area do not appear until the late 19th Century, but inscriptions in local temples date between the 8th and 10th Centuries, "suggesting potential earlier origins".

So scientists believe that some of the bodies found at the site happened because of a "mass death during a pilgrimage event".

But how did people from the eastern Mediterranean land up at a remote lake in India's highest mountains?

It seems unlikely that people from Europe would have traveled all the way from Roopkund to participate in a Hindu pilgrimage.

Or was it a genetically isolated population of people from distant eastern Mediterranean ancestry that had been living in the region for many generations?

Perhaps they weren’t actually Mediterranean migrants, Dr. Jarman said. Their genetic ancestry resembles that of present-day people from Greece or Crete, but current distribution may not apply to ancient populations. Regardless, this group came from somewhere far from Roopkund Lake, for reasons unknown.

Maybe the site held significance for groups with various religious beliefs, said Dr. Jarman. Maybe some of the skeletons were brought for burial, possibly to be left in the lake. Or maybe there were ill-fated explorers — driven by a desire to see a spectacular mountain range, killed by their own curiosity.

A few answers have begun to emerge, at least. Archaeology is full of such enigmatic sites, Dr. Reich said, and when science comes along and digs in, “it enriches the story in immeasurable ways.”

"We are still searching for answers," says Ms Harney.

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