The mystery of the Himalayan skeleton-filled lake
Sylvie Claire / August 13, 2020
At 4,800 meters above sea level in the Himalayan range lies Lake Roopkund, known for the hundreds of skeletons that have been found there and whose origin is still unknown.
At 40 meters wide, it is frozen over much of the year. In 1942, when H.K. Madhwal, a ranger of Nanda Devi National Park, arrived at the lake whose ice had partly melted in the spring, it was a gruesome and frightening spectacle he witnessed. Hundreds of human skeletons, some still with rotting flesh, emerge from what is known today as Skeleton Lake.
For decades, countless different theories have tried to unravel the mystery of skeletons. Many believed that all people died at the same time in a catastrophic event over 1,000 years ago.
However, a new genetic analysis done by scientists in India, America and Germany has overturned this theory. The study, which examined the DNA of 38 skeletons, indicates that the skeletons do not date from a single period but that the dates of death are spread over a millennium!
The skeletons come from 3 very different places
Little is known about the provenance of these skeletons. Landslides, migrating glaciers, and even human visitors disturbed and moved the remains, making it difficult to decipher when and how the individuals were buried, let alone who they were. "In a case like this, it becomes impossible," Cat Jarman, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bristol in England who was not on the research team, told The New York Times.
Genetic analysis has helped make sense of the tangle of bones. The researchers, led in part by Niraj Rai, a former DNA expert at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in India, and David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, extracted DNA from the remains of 38 skeletal samples and managed to identify 23 men and 15 women.
After comparisons of genetic material, scientists were able to separate three distinct genetic groups. First, 23 skeletons, both male and female, had ancestors comparable to contemporary South Asians and were found in the lake between the 7th and 10th centuries, but not all at the same time. Some skeletons were older than others, so not all of them were the victims of a single fatal event.
Then the rest of the skeletons date from around 1000 years later, between the 17th and 20th centuries, and consist of two genetic groups: an individual of East Asian ancestry and, oddly, 14 people of Eastern Mediterranean ancestry.
"This discovery shows the power of radiocarbon dating, as the skeletons at Roopkund Lake were previously assumed to be the result of a single catastrophic event," said Douglas Kennett, one of the authors of the new study, in A press release.
The mystery remains whole
Among the theories, some believe that a war or disease may have decimated these hundreds of people, but studies contradict these ideas since the skeletons do not show trauma or signs of fatal pathologies. However, the theory that the harsh high altitude environment may have proved fatal remains a valid hypothesis.
A previous study, looking at five skeletal samples, found three with unhealed compression fractures, possibly inflicted by huge hailstones, although this conclusion is open to debate. Either way, over several centuries, "it's hard to believe that every individual died in exactly the same way," said Éadaoin Harney, a Harvard doctoral student and lead author of the study.
Researchers note that Roopkund Lake is located on a route known to modern Hindu pilgrims, some may have died during the ascent but this does not explain the presence of individuals from the Mediterranean. Either way, this group came from somewhere far from Lake Roopkund, for reasons unknown.
Even though scientists now know that the lake contains the bones of people from different parts of the world who died at different times, they are no closer to determining what killed them…
Credit : RTBF