Ancient human remains frozen in the Himalayas (Skeleton lake), had DNA from over 3,500 miles away

Imagine a frozen lake, located high in the Himalayan Mountains which has the skeletal remains of more than 300 people at the bottom of it.
The enigmatic Roopkund lake, also known as skeleton lake due to the fact that the bones of hundreds of skeletons litter the area.

Ancient human remains frozen in the Himalayas (Skeleton lake), had DNA from over 3,500 miles away

Location of the Skeleton lake

During the second world war, in 1942, a forest ranger, H K Madhwal came across the frightful location.
Roopkund Lake aka skeleton lake is situated at the bottom of a small valley in the Himalayas, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, in India.
The lake is very shallow, and it’s approximately 2 meters deep. (6.56 ft.)
It appears to be a peaceful winter lake except for the fact that this lake has a deadly past that had been a secret for centuries until it was discovered by the ranger during the second world war.

Ancient human remains frozen in the Himalayas (Skeleton lake), had DNA from over 3,500 miles away

legend of the Skeleton lake

The local legend states that Raja Jasdhaval, the king of Kanauj, was traveling to Nanda Devi shrine, for the Nanda Devi Raj Jat (Happens every 12 years) with his pregnant wife, Rani Balampa to offer prayers.
The alleged couple was accompanied by servants, a dance troupe, and many others.
It is believed that the group was struck down with iron balls fallen from the sky by an angry deity.
It has been suggested by the researchers that those iron balls could have been the extremely large hailstones that suddenly started falling upon the travelers.

The storm was catastrophic and with no shelter to seek, the entire group perished near Roopkund.
For a long time, this story appeared to be a legend, with no evidence to prove it to be true.
However, recent finds may lend some support to the legend as the parasols that may have been used during the procession were discovered untidily scattered among the human remains, and some of the skulls have unhealed fractures, which could have been the result of massive hailstones

Ancient human remains frozen in the Himalayas (Skeleton lake), had DNA from over 3,500 miles away

Where are these skeletal remains from?

“Little is known about the origin of these skeletons, as they have never been subjected to systematic anthropological or archaeological scrutiny, in part due to the disturbing nature of the site, which is frequently affected by rock slides, and which is often visited by local pilgrims and hikers who have manipulated the skeletons and removed many of the artifacts.”

A team of international researchers 

A team of researchers decided to find out more about the skeletons, so they set on a dangerous expedition to the Himalayas to reach the lake, which is surrounded by steep slopes.
As they reached the site, they collected samples and proceeded to apply multiple techniques and technologies to know more about the skeletons.
The results contradicted several theories that have been proposed over the years, such as the remains being an army of invaders.
The team also discovered that most of the remains had been there for over 1,000 years, however, not all of them died at the same time.
With further experiments and investigations, it was found that the remains consisted of more than just bones.
Freezing temperatures and dry, cold air allowed bits of flesh, nails, and hair to be preserved as well.
Moreover, pieces such as wooden artifacts, iron spearheads, leather slippers, and jewelry were also discovered.

Human bones partially buried under the snow at Skeleton Lake in India, most of which are 1,000 years old

“To shed light on the origin of the skeletons of Roopkund, we analyzed their remains using a series of bioarcheological analyses, including ancient DNA, stable isotope dietary reconstruction, radiocarbon dating, and osteological analysis. We find that the Roopkund skeletons belong to three genetically distinct groups that were deposited during multiple events, separated in time by approximately 1000 years. These findings refute previous suggestions that the skeletons of Roopkund Lake were deposited in a single catastrophic event.”

However, one theory could explain some of the findings.
Experts say that injuries inflicted upon some of the skeletons suggest that the skeletal remains may belong to humans who were caught up in a hailstorm in the 9th century.

“The analysis suggests that the Roopkund individuals were broadly healthy, but also identifies three individuals with unhealed compression fractures; the report hypothesizes that these injuries could have transpired during a violent hailstorm of the type that sometimes occurs in the vicinity of Roopkund Lake, while also recognizing that other scenarios are plausible

Upon analyzing, it was found that none of the remains were related to each other, and the presence of male and female remains in relatively equal numbers reject the theory of a military campaign.
It is suggested that to whosoever these reamains belong to were in good health when they died, so the theory that these people were victims of an epidemic is also unlikely.

“The relatively similar proportions of males and females are difficult to reconcile with the suggestion that these individuals might have been part of a military expedition. We detected no relative pairs (3rd degree or closer) among the sequenced individuals, providing evidence against the idea that the Roopkund skeletons might represent the remains of groups of families.”

“We also found no evidence that the individuals were infected with bacterial pathogens, providing no support for the suggestion that these individuals died in an epidemic, although we caution that failure to find evidence for pathogen DNA in long bone powder may simply reflect the fact that it was present at too low a concentration to detect.”

The team hypothesizes that most of the skeletal remains belong to the people who participated in the procession to the Nanda Devi Raj Jat pilgrimage, which has been occurring for centuries every 12 years.
There is a possibility that many of them wandered into the location and got caught in catastrophic hailstorms.
The diverse genetics of the remains, however, led to another mystery.
Because it is revealed that some of the men and women were of Mediterranean descent born during the reign of the Ottoman Empire.

“Combining different lines of evidence, the data suggest instead that what we have sampled is a group of unrelated men and women who were born in the eastern Mediterranean during the period of Ottoman political control.
As suggested by their consumption of a predominantly terrestrial, rather than a marine-based diet, they may have lived in an inland location, eventually traveling to and dying in the Himalayas. Whether they were participating in a pilgrimage or were drawn to Roopkund Lake for other reasons, is a mystery.”

The study clearly answered some questions but also generated new ones that could keep scientists scratching their heads for a while.

“It may be even more of a mystery than before,” It was unbelievable because the type of ancestry we find in about a third of the individuals is so unusual for this part of the world.”

Harvard geneticist and study author David Reich told The Atlantic. 

The distance from Roopkund Lake to the Mediterranean region is around 3,500+ miles.
Quite a trek for anyone to make, much less to this remote part of the world.
University of Pennsylvania anthropology department chairperson Kathleen Morrison, however, believes the site could just be a graveyard where the locals placed the dead.

“I suspect that they’re aggregated there, that local people put them in the lake,” she said. “When you see a lot of human skeletons, usually it’s a graveyard.”

However, it’s difficult to judge if that’s the case, especially since the presence of Mediterranean peoples remains unexplained.

“Taken together, these results have produced meaningful insights about an enigmatic ancient site,” the team wrote. “More generally, this study highlights the power of biomolecular analyses to obtain rich information about the human story behind archaeological deposits that are so highly disturbed that traditional archaeological methods are not as informative.”

Archaeologists may not have been capable of figuring out but let us hope new technology and further research could finally solve the mystery of this enigmatic skeleton lake.

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