Secrets tumble out of skeletons in icy lake

Himalayan mystery

The Roopkund lake at an altitude of 16,500 ft in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand has hundreds of ancient human skeletons around its shores.

Untangling a few knots on the enigmatic skeleton lake mystery, scientists on Tuesday reported that people belonging to three distinct ethnicities — Indians, Greeks and a lone South East Asian individual — travelled to the icy lake in the Himalayas hundreds of years ago and died.

The Roopkund lake at an altitude of 16,500 ft in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand remains a puzzle to science for more than 60 years, with barely any explanations about hundreds of ancient human skeletons around its shores.

Researchers from India, USA and Germany now offer at least a partial insight after studying ancient DNA from 38 skeletons with modern biological tools.

There were at least three distinct groups among the Roopkund skeletons. The first group consisted of 23 individuals with ancestries that are related to people from present-day India who visited the lake around 800 AD.

“The Indians could be pilgrims as Roopkund is close to a present-day pilgrimage route — the Nanda Devi Raj Jat pilgrimage which occurs once in every 12 years. Though the lake is not directly on the pilgrimage route, it is possible that they lost their way or got misled and landed up at Roopkund or reached the lake for a ritual,” Niraj Rai, a scientist at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, and one of the lead authors of the study, told DH.

The most surprising element is the second group of 14 skeletons, who are closely related to people living in modern-day Crete and Greece. “The presence of Greeks after 1,000 years is baffling,” said K Thangaraj, another team member and a geneticist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.

“Whether they (the Greeks) were participating in a pilgrimage or were drawn to Roopkund lake for other reasons is a mystery. It would be surprising for a Hindu pilgrimage to be practised by a large group of travellers from the eastern Mediterranean where Hindu practices have not been common,” the team reported in Nature Communications.

A third individual has an ancestry that is more typical of that found in Southeast Asia. The last two groups travelled to the spot around 1800 AD, exactly 1,000 years after the Indians.

The study that comes out after more than a decade of research by 28 scientists is the first whole genome ancient DNA data from India and illustrates that the site has an even more complex history than imagined.

First, during the 7th-10th centuries AD, individuals with Indian ancestry died at Roopkund, possibly during several distinct events, but it was not until sometime during the 17th-20th centuries that the other two groups — possibly composed of travellers from the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia — arrived at the Roopkund lake.

“Among the Indians, there are both men and women. All of them are healthy and not closely related. The Greeks, on the other hand, could be from a family as they are genetically linked. It is still not clear what brought these individuals to the Roopkund lake or how they died,” said Niraj Rai. “We hope that this study represents the first of many analyses of this mysterious site.”

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