Deep in the Indian Himalayas, a remote lake nestled in a snowy valley filled with hundreds of human skeletons.
Lake Roopkund sits 5,029 meters above sea level at the base of a steep slope on Trisul, one of India’s highest mountains, in the state of Uttarakhand.
The bodies were scattered around and under the ice of the “skull lake,” which was discovered by a British ranger on patrol in 1942. For more than half a century, anthropologists and scientists have studied the bodies.
Lake Roopkund has attracted curious scientists and visitors for years. As the seasons and weather changed, the lake, which was frozen for most of the year, was expanding and shrinking. Only when the snow melts does a skeleton appear, sometimes with the flesh still attached and well-preserved.
To date, the skeletal remains of about 600-800 people have been found here. In the promotion of tourism, the local government describes this place as a “mystery lake”.
For more than half a century, anthropologists and scientists have studied the bodies and have been puzzled by a number of questions.
Who are these people? When did they die? How did they die? Where did they come from?
An old theory links corpses to an Indian king, his wife, and their servants, all of whom died in a snowstorm about 870 years ago.
The remains of 600-800 people were found at the site. (Himadri Sinha Roy)
Another theory is that some of the bodies were Indian soldiers who tried to invade Tibet in 1841, and were beaten back. More than 70 of them then sought their way back through the Himalayas and died en route.
Still another theory assumes that this could be a “grave” where the victims of the plague are buried. In villages in the area, there is a popular folk song that tells of how Dewi Nanda Devi created a hail storm “as hard as iron” which killed the people circling the lake. The second highest mountain in India, Nanda Devi, is worshiped as a goddess.
Previous studies of the skeletons found that many of the people who died were “more than average.” Most of them are middle aged adults, aged between 35 and 40 years. No babies or children. Some of them are elderly women. All of them were in fairly good health.
Also, it is generally assumed that the skeletons are a group of people who died all at once in a catastrophic incident in the 9th century.
Recent studies, which lasted five years and involved 28 research colleagues from 16 institutions based in India, the US and Germany, found that all of these assumptions may not be correct.
Scientists performed genetic analysis and dating on 38 bodies, including 15 women, which were found in the lake some of which date back some 1,200 years.
It was only when the snow melted that human skeletons were clearly visible at the location of the lake. (Getty Images)
They found that the people who died were genetically diverse, and their deaths separated by up to 1,000 years.
“It refutes any explanation involving a single catastrophic event as the cause of their death,” said Eadaoin Harney, lead investigator on the study, and a doctoral student at Harvard University.
“It’s still unclear what happened at Lake Roopkund, but now we know for sure that the deaths of these people can’t be explained by a single event.”
But more interestingly, genetic studies found that the people who died in the lake were diverse: one group had genes similar to those of people living in South Asia today, while the other group was “closely related” to people who living in Europe today, especially those living on the island of Crete, Greece.
Also, people who came from South Asia “do not appear to be from the same population”.
“Some of them have bloodlines that have more in common with people from the northern subcontinent, while others have bloodlines from groups that have more in common with people from the south,” says Harney.
So, did these diverse groups of people go to Roopkund Lake in smaller groups over a period of several hundred years? Did some of them die in one event?
No weapons or trade goods were found on site – Roopkund Lake was not located on a trade route. Genetic studies have found no evidence of ancient bacterial pathogens that can cause disease as an explanation for death.
Tourism promotions describe Roopkund as a ‘mystery lake’. (Getty Images)
Pilgrimages through the lake may explain why people travel in the area. Studies reveal that records of pilgrimages in the area did not appear until the late 19th century, but inscriptions on the local temples date from the 8th and 10th centuries, “suggesting potential earlier origins”.
So scientists believe that some of the bodies found at the site were due to “mass deaths during pilgrimages.”
But how did people from the eastern Mediterranean land on remote lakes in India’s highest mountains?
It seems unlikely that people from Europe traveled all the way from Roopkund to take part in the Hindu pilgrimage.
Or is it a population of people who are genetically isolated from their ancestors in the far eastern Mediterranean, who have lived in the region for generations?
“We’re still looking for answers,” said Harney.
Watch the video ‘Appearance of Himalayan Glaciers Before and After Landslides’:
(ita / ita)