Scientists analyze ancient human bones at India’s Skeleton Lake and find DNA from over 3,500 miles away

High in the Himalayan Mountains lies India’s mysterious Roopkund Lake, which is also eerily known as Skeleton Lake, due to the fact that the bones of hundreds of skeletons litter the area, and it continues to baffle scientists to this day.

During World War II, a forest ranger discovered the grisly location and must have been scared to death wondering if he would end up joining the human skeletons just for discovering them by accident.

The sight of hundreds, even thousands of bones scattered across the landscape at Skeleton Lake. Image via Nature.

Skeleton Lake is situated approximately 5,000 yards above sea level and from a distance, it looks like a peaceful winter lake. Except this lake has a deadly past that had been a secret for centuries until the ranger found it.

Since then, archaeologists have been scratching their heads trying to unlock the secrets of the site, a task made all the more difficult because rock slides and mountaineers have frequently disturbed the remains over the years. As a result, there are no complete skeletons.

Bones stacked by hikers and mountain climbers at the site, which makes study complicated. Image via YouTube.

A team of international researchers wrote the following in a report published by Nature:

“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 disturbed nature of the site, which is frequently affected by rockslides, and which is often visited by local pilgrims and hikers who have manipulated the skeletons and removed many of the artifacts.”

For the first time, a team of researchers made it their mission to find out more about the skeletons, so they braved the dangers of scaling the Himalayas to reach the lake, which is surrounded by steep slopes.

Upon reaching the site, they collected samples and proceeded to apply multiple techniques and technologies to investigate. What they found directly contradicts several theories that have been offered over the years, such as the remains being an army of invaders. The team also found that most of the remains had been there for over 1,000 years, but not all of them died at the same time.

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

“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 some of the skeletons may belong to humans who were caught in a hailstorm in the 9th century. Well, the team found injuries that could be explained by such an event.

“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.”

Human bones placed on top of rocks at Skeleton Lake. Image via Wikimedia.

None of the remains analyzed were related to each other, and the presence of male and female remains in relatively equal numbers debunks the theory of a military campaign gone wrong. And it appears they were all 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 is 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.”

Skeleton Lake
Roopkunk Lake via Nature

The team hypothesizes that most of the remains belong to people who took part in the Nanda Devi Raj Jat pilgrimage, which has been occurring for centuries every 12 years. It’s entirely plausible that many of them wandered into the location and got caught in dangerous weather that is notorious in the region.

The diverse genetics of the remains, however, revealed another mystery. Because it turns out 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 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.”

More human remains eerily situated on rocks, this time with vegetation growing near. Image via Wikimedia.

The study clearly answered some questions but also generated new ones that could keep scientists busy for awhile.

“It may be even more of a mystery than before,” Harvard geneticist and study author David Reich told The Atlantic. “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.”

Note: 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 chair 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 hard to know if that’s the case, especially since the presence of Mediterranean peoples remains unexplained. If anything, the team of researchers proved that even a site as shrouded in mystery as the Skeleton Lake that has been disturbed repeatedly by humans and natural forces can still provide much knowledge.

“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 the Skeleton Lake mystery before, but new technology and further research could finally solve it.

See more from Gergő in the video below:

Featured Image: Roopkund Lake by Neha iitb via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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