Himalayas: Skeleton Lake is a mystery

Where did the hundreds of dead on the lake shore come from and why did they die?

Hundreds of human skeletons lie on the shores of this lake, which lies high in the Indian Himalayas. When they died and where they came from, researchers have now studied for the first time. © Atish Waghwase
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Mysterious Deaths: Hundreds of ancient skeletons lie on the shores of Roopkund Lake, high in the Indian Himalayas. Now DNA analyzes reveal that these dead did not die in a single disaster as previously thought. Instead, there are up to a thousand years between them. It is also puzzling: a group of these dead came from the Mediterranean - and thus from an area thousands of miles away.

The only 40 meters large Roopkund lake lies deep in the Himalaya mountains at 5, 029 meters altitude. But despite his remote location, he seems to have received a surprising amount of visitors in the past. For there are hundreds of old skeletons of humanity on its shores. When and why these people once died was still unclear. According to local legends, this is a group of pilgrims struck down by the goddess Nanda Devi. Others suspect that an expedition or army unit was once surprised and killed by a blizzard.

Human bones scattered on the shores of Roopkund Lake. © Himadri Sinha Roy

No expedition, no epidemic

What really happened to the Dead of "Skeleton Lake" and where they came from has now been researched for the first time by an international research team headed by David Reich of Harvard University and Niraj Rai of the CSIR Research Center in Hyderabad. The researchers subjected DNA samples from 71 of the Roopkund skeletons to DNA analysis, isotope measurements and radiocarbon dating.

The result: among the dead are about the same number of men and women, but no more closely related individuals. This does not fit with an army unit or expedition, nor with a group of families or closely related pilgrims. "We also found no evidence of infection with bacterial agents, which speaks against the assumption that these dead were victims of an epidemic, " say the researchers.

Dead also from the Mediterranean

But who were these dead then? A first hint was provided by the DNA analyzes of the bone samples: "The skeletal genetics surprised us a lot, " says first author Eadaoin Harney from Harvard University. Because the dead were not only from the near environment. Although 23 individuals were of Indian descent, they came from very different regions of the subcontinent. display

Even more surprising, however, was the origin of 14 other dead: they had a signature typical of the Mediterranean region. "It inevitably raises the question of how migrants from the eastern Mediterranean, with a very untypical ancestry profile for this region, came here and died there, " says Reich. Another dead man came from Southeast Asia. This meant that even the small sample of the skeletons examined so far belonged to three different groups of origin.

There are a thousand years between the deaths

The result of the dating is also puzzling: they revealed that not all of these people could have died at the same time at an event. Instead, between the Indian and the Mediterranean dead are about a thousand years: the group of Indian descent died in the seventh to tenth centuries, the group from the Mediterranean, however, only in the 17th to 20th centuries. "These results demonstrate that the skeletons of Roopkund Lake must have died in at least two separate events, " explain Reich and his team.

But with which? At least for the group of Indian dead, the researchers hypothesized, "Although Roopkund Lake is not on any major trade route, it is part of a pilgrim route - the Nanda Devi Raj Lat pilgrimage, which still is today twelve years ", they explain. Inscriptions in nearby temples suggest that these pilgrimages took place 1, 200 years ago. At least part of the Indian dead could have died during such a pilgrimage.

R tsel around Mediterranean dead remains

The second group, the dead from the Mediterranean, is much harder to explain. "It is tempting to see these people as descendants of Indo-Greek populations from the time of Alexander the Great, " the researchers said. But then their genetic material should show at least traces of mixing with local populations which was not the case.

"Instead, the data suggest that we have a group of unrelated men and women born during the Ottoman rule in the eastern Mediterranean, " explains Reich and his team. That these people have participated in a Hindu pilgrimage, was unlikely. Why they sought out this remote lake in the highlands of the Indian Himalayas and how they died there remains unexplained.

"The discovery of individuals from the Mediterranean suggests that Lake Roopkund was not just of local interest, but that people from all over the world came here, " says Harney. Rai adds: "So far, it has remained unclear what brought them here and how they died. We hope that this first investigation will be followed by many more to clarify these issues. "(Nature Communications, 2019; doi: 10.1038 / s41467-019-11357-9)

Source: Max Planck Institute for the History of Human History

- Nadja Podbregar