Interesting Facts

The mystery of India's 'lake of skeletons'

In 1942, a British forest guard in India made an alarming discovery. Some 16,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons.

Hundreds of human skeletons are scattered around a secluded lake located in a snow-covered valley high in the Indian Himalayas.

In the state of Uttarakhand, at the base of a steep slope atop Trisul, one of India’s highest peaks, sits Roopkund Lake, 5,029 metres (16,500 feet) above sea level.

At the “lake of skeletons”, the bones are scattered all over and under the ice. A British forest ranger on patrol found them there in 1942.

The lake, which is frozen for most of the year, varies in size depending on the weather and season. The skeletons are only visible once the snow melts, sometimes with flesh still attached and in good condition. Thus far, this site has yielded the skeletal remains of between 600 and 800 individuals. The local government refers to it as a “mystery lake” in tourism promotions.

Scientists and anthropologists have examined the remains and worked through a number of unanswered questions for more than 50 years.

Who were these individuals? When did they pass away? How did they pass away? From where did they originate?

According to an antiquated theory, the remains belong to an Indian king, his spouse, and their companions, who were all killed in a blizzard approximately 870 years ago.

The remains of an estimated 600-800 people have been found at the site. Photo Credit: Himadri Sinha Roy

According to another theory, some of the remains may belong to Indian soldiers who attempted to invade Tibet in 1841 but were routed. After that, more than 70 of them were forced to cross the Himalayas to get home, where they perished en route.

Another theory is that this might have been a “cemetery” where epidemic victims were interred. There is a well-known folk song in the villages that describes how Goddess Nanda Devi caused a hailstorm “as hard as iron” that killed travelers who were making their way past the lake. Nanda Devi, the second-highest mountain in India, is worshipped as a goddess.

Previous skeletal studies have revealed that the majority of the deceased were tall, with “more than average stature” being the most common description. The majority of them were middle-aged, with ages ranging from 35 to 40. There were no kids or infants present. Among them were some very old women. Everybody was in fairly good health.

Furthermore, it was widely believed that the skeletons belonged to a single group of individuals who perished simultaneously in a single tragic event in the ninth century.

The most recent five-year study, which included 28 co-authors from 16 US, German, and Indian academic institutions, discovered that some of these presumptions might not be accurate.

Scientists discovered 38 bodies at the lake, including 15 women whose remains were carbon-dated and subjected to genetic analysis; some of the bodies date back approximately 1,200 years.

Only when the snow melts, do the skeletons become visible at the lake site. Photo Credit: Getty Images

They discovered that the deceased had differing genetic profiles and had passed away up to a millennium apart.

Lead study author and Harvard University doctorate student Eadaoin Harney told me, “It upends any explanations that involved a single catastrophic event that led to their deaths.” “We can now be certain that deaths of these individuals cannot be explained by a single event,” Harney said, adding that “it is still not clear what happened at Roopkund Lake.”

More intriguingly, however, a genetics study revealed that the deceased were a mixed population: one group shared genetic traits with modern South Asians, while the other was “closely related” to modern Europeans, especially those who resided on the Greek island of Crete.

Moreover, the South Asian immigrants “do not appear to come from 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 Harney.

So over the course of a few hundred years, did these various groups of people make smaller trips to the lake? Did a few of them pass away in one go?

The lake is not near a trade route, so no weapons, arms, or trade goods were discovered there. Genetic investigations turned up no proof of the existence of any archaic bacterial pathogen that may have caused the illness or been the reason for the deaths.

Tourism promotions describe Roopkund as a ‘mystery lake’. Photo Credit: Getty Images

People traveling in the area could have been part of a pilgrimage that passes by the lake. According to studies, reliable reports of pilgrimages in the region only surface in the late 19th century, although inscriptions found in nearby temples from the 8th to the 10th centuries “suggesting potential earlier origins”

Accordingly, scientists surmise that a “mass death during a pilgrimage event” may have caused some of the bodies discovered at the location.

However, how did travelers from the eastern Mediterranean end up at a secluded lake nestled in the tallest mountains of India?

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It doesn’t seem likely that anyone would have made the long journey from Roopkund to take part in a Hindu pilgrimage from Europe.

Or was it a population, isolated genetically over many generations, of people with distant eastern Mediterranean ancestry living in the region?

“We’re still looking for solutions,” Ms. Harney declares.

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