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Skull in the snow. Credit: Antje / Adobe Stock

Himalayan Skeleton Lake Mystery Just Got Deeper

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The mysterious circumstances surrounding events at a remote mountain lake, found full of human skeletons, are evading scientists who have looked deep into this bizarre incident.

The remains of about 800 human bodies were discovered at the remote Roopkund Lake, located over 16,404 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level in the Indian Himalayas, and until now the people were thought to have been pilgrims who had perished in a storm over a millennia ago. But this is ‘not’ what killed the group of people, according to a new paper.

The new study was written by a team of scientists led by Niraj Rai, an archaeogeneticist at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India, and it was published today in the journal Nature. Attempting to answer what exactly happened at the so called ‘Skeleton Lake’ over a thousand years ago. A report in National Geographic says that in the early 2000s scientists studied DNA from the bodies and the broad results determined that the people were of South Asian ancestry, and that they had all died in a single event around 800 AD.

Human skeletons in Roopkund Lake also known as Death Lake. (Schwiki / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Human skeletons in Roopkund Lake also known as Death Lake. (Schwiki / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Reevaluating The Circumstances At Death Lake

With advancements in technology the paper says, “full genomic analyses from 38 sets of skeletal remains upend that story”, and the new report says the people were “also found to have genetic ties to the Mediterranean, Greece, and Crete, and that nobody was related to each other”. The scientists also found “another group of 14 victims” who they believe had died “a thousand years later in a single event” in the 17th and 20th centuries AD.

Evolutionary biologist Éadaoin Harney of Harvard University told Science Alert “We were extremely surprised by the genetics of the Roopkund skeletons” and Dr. Niraj Rai, the lead author, told National Geographic in an email that the team doesn’t know and isn’t speculating. Dr. Rai added “We have failed to answer why Mediterranean people were traveling to this lake and what they were doing here”.

What Didn’t Happen at Death Lake

What is known is that the people ‘didn’t’ die battling each other as no weapons or wounds have been found to support this idea. Furthermore, the victims were all healthy when they died, ruling out a mass epidemic of any sort.

Desperate for answers, the scientists even looked at the words of local song which describes an ill-fated royal procession during the Raj Jat pilgrimage, which every 12 years was enacted to worship the goddess Nanda Devi. The story says the god became “enraged” and struck the group down with “iron balls thrown from the sky”, according to the new paper.

These “iron balls thrown from the sky” were interpreted by the scientists as maybe relating to a severe hailstorm and this idea found support in that “parasols of a type used during the procession” were discovered strewn among the human remains, and some of the skulls “bear unhealed fractures” which massive hailstones might have caused.

However, William Sax, head of the Heidelberg University’s anthropology department and author of the book Mountain Goddess, Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage, told National Geographic that when pilgrims get up to Roopkund, “they're scrambling because they have much farther to go, so they sort of stop and briefly show a bit of respect, if you will - but it's not and never has been terribly important for the pilgrimage itself”. Dr. Sax said of Skeleton Lake, “It's kind of a dark and dirty place where you sort of nod your head and move on”.

The path to Death Lake. (Djds4rce / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The path to Death Lake. (Djds4rce / CC BY-SA 3.0)

New Investigations at Death Lake

David Reich is a geneticist at Harvard University, and one of the senior authors of the new paper, and he said, “It was unbelievable” referring to the type of ancestry found in a third of the individuals as “so unusual for this part of the world”.

But contrary to this being ‘unbelievable’ an article in The Atlantic quotes Kathleen Morrison, chair of the anthropology department at the University of Pennsylvania, who said “the least interesting thing about the specimens at Roopkund is where in the world their DNA says they came from” pointing out that a “Hellenic kingdom existed in the Indian subcontinent for about 200 years, beginning in 180 BC” and that “some unknown group of Mediterranean European people is not really a big revelation”.

With scientists at logger-heads, several theories have been considered including that maybe the skeletons were moved to the site? Or did the party lose their way and simply perish in bad weather? Or was it a giant hailstone shower, as recorded in the local story?

Skeletons at Death Lake. (Nature / Fair Use)

Skeletons at Death Lake. (Nature / Fair Use)

Or, perhaps the bodies were taken to the lake by local people who used it like an ‘out of sight out of mind’ graveyard? To answer these questions, the team of researchers are currently planning to return to Roopkund next year when another expedition will attempt to investigate the mysterious skeletons and the artifacts found with them to finally answer this perplexing mystery.

Top image: Skull in the snow. Credit: Antje / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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