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The Mystery of India’s Skeleton Lake

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A small lake, more like a pond really, high in the Himalayan Mountain range was found to contain the skeletons of as many as 500 people. Who were they, where did they come from, and how did they die? The answers turned out to be elusive.

Roopkund (Skeleton) Lake.

Roopkund (Skeleton) Lake.

Wartime Discovery

In 1942, a game reserve ranger named Hari Kishan Madhwal stumbled on a strange find. In a small lake he could see human bones; a lot of them.

The glacial lake is at an altitude of 16,470 feet (5,020 m) in the Himalayan Mountains. Roopkund Lake is only three metres deep and crystal clear for the one month in each year when it is ice free. When the discovery of bones was reported the lake soon became known as Skeleton Lake or Mystery Lake.

When the British administrators of India heard about the bones they became deeply concerned. Was this evidence of a Japanese attempt to invade India, the prospect of which caused a major flap at military headquarters?

A team was sent to investigate and was able to report the bones were not fresh enough to be those of current Japanese soldiers.

A bone pile at Roopkund Lake.

A bone pile at Roopkund Lake.

Speculation About Roopkund’s Skeletons

If not Japanese soldiers on a mission gone awry then what? All sorts of ideas were put forward.

Could it be the result of some sort of ritual suicide? Such things do happen among Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu religious zealots, usually as a form of protest. Japanese followers of the Bushido code also took their own lives as a way of redressing shame. But, such extreme measures usually take place one at a time, not by hundreds of people. And, if it was a protest, why carry it out in a remote, uninhabited valley with nobody around to witness it?

A local legend also fits the religious angle. The story is that a king took a group of dancers to the lake and this upset a rather grumpy god who struck them down and turned them into skeletons.

Were aliens involved? Probably not.

Caught in a Hailstorm

In 2004, an expedition was mounted to finally sort out the conundrum.

The skeletons were dated to around 850 CE and most seemed to die in the same way, from blows to the head. But, the skull injuries did not appear to have been caused by weapons, rather they looked as though something round was involved.

According to Atlas Obscura, “Among Himalayan women, there is an ancient and traditional folk song. The lyrics describe a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones ‘hard as iron.’ ”

Aha! Maybe that’s it. A group of travellers on a pilgrimage was caught in a hailstorm with projectiles the size of a tennis ball raining down on them. Thousands of strikes accounted for the head and shoulder injuries.

More Roopkund bones.

More Roopkund bones.

Difficult Archaeological Fieldwork

The hailstorm theory stood was the prevailing explanation for the collection of bones until a team of archaeologists, geneticists, and other science specialists started looking at the skeletons.

Their task was complicated. In the parlance of their trade, the Roopkund site was “disturbed.” Mountaineers and other passersby had piled some bones into cairns; others had taken them home as souvenirs.

(“Hey honey, guess what I brought back from my trip to the Himalayas”).

There was not a single intact skeleton to be found on the site.

In addition, at 16,000 feet above sea level some team members were incapacitated by altitude sickness. And, that high in the Himalayas, the research season is short and the weather can turn from benign to brutal in a few minutes.

Navigating around the obstacles, the team discovered, through carbon dating, that not all the bones came from people who died at the same time. Some of the bones came from people who died more than a thousand years ago, but some were much younger, probably from the early 19th century.

The genetic evidence revealed even more puzzles.

Researchers have to go on a four-day trek to reach Roopkund Lake.

Researchers have to go on a four-day trek to reach Roopkund Lake.

The Revelations of DNA

The team studied DNA from 38 different individuals. They were roughly evenly divided between males and females, so that ruled out any military connection. The DNA revealed no close relationship among the bodies, so they were not family groups. The genetic material also showed no bacterial pathogens, so they didn’t die from disease.

There was even more interesting evidence to emerge from studies of the ancestral genome. Some of the bodies belonged to people of south Asian heritage, which is what you would expect. And, they dated from various different times around 800 CE.

But, what were folks with Mediterranean backgrounds, most likely Greeks, of about 1800 vintage doing there? They were mixed in with remains from a southeast Asian person and they all seem to have died at the same time.

Rachel Gutman of The Atlantic magazine sums up: “Besides, knowing that some of the bones at Roopkund came from a slightly unusual population still doesn’t shake the fundamental mystery: how hundreds of people’s remains ended up at one remote mountain lake.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The Himalayas are among the world’s largest mountain ranges and are thrown up by the Indian tectonic plate colliding with the Eurasian plate. The Indian plate is still moving northeast at five centimetres (two inches) a year, causing the Himalayas to become one centimetre higher every year.
  • Every 12 years, thousands of people join the Raj Jat pilgrimage, which takes devotees on an 18-day journey over very rough terrain in the area near Roopkund Lake. The pilgrimage is to honour the Nanda Devi Mountain, which is considered to be the patron goddess of the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Some have suggested the skeletal remains at the lake may be connected to the pilgrimage.

Sources

  • “Skeleton Lake of Roopkund, India.” Dylan, Atlas Obscura, undated.
  • “The Mystery of ‘Skeleton Lake’ Gets Deeper.” Rachel Gutman, The Atlantic, August 20, 2019.
  • “Ancient DNA from the Skeletons of Roopkund Lake Reveals Mediterranean Migrants in India.” Éadaoin Harney, el at., Nature Communications, August 20, 2019.
  • “Scientists Crack Roopkund Skeleton Mystery.” T.V. Jayan, The Hindu, August 21, 2019.
  • “The Ancient Mystery of the ‘Skeleton Lake.’ ” BBC, August 4, 2020.
  • “DNA Study Deepens Mystery of Lake Full of Skeletons.” Kristin Romey, National Geographic, August 20, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on August 19, 2020:

Spooky indeed. Your article brought me a few chills reading it.

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