The Mysterious Skeleton Lake
An EcoChi Vital Abstract
This article was posted on August 20, 2019 by Robin George Andrews, The New York Times.
In the Indian Himalayas, 16,500 feet above sea level, sits Roopkund Lake. 103 feet wide, it is frozen for much of the year. But on warmer days, hundreds of human skeletons, some with flesh still attached, emerge from what has become known as Skeleton Lake. Who were these individuals, and what befell them? One leading idea was that they died simultaneously in a catastrophic event more than 1,000 years ago. But a new genetic analysis carried out by scientists in India, America and Germany, which examined DNA from 38 remains, indicates that there wasn’t just one mass dumping of the dead, but several, spread over a millennium. Anthropologists have known about Roopkund Lake for several decades, but rockslides, migrating ice and even human visitors have disturbed and moved the remains, making it difficult to decipher when and how the individuals were buried, much less who they were. The researchers, led in part by Niraj Rai, an expert in ancient DNA at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in India, and David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, extracted DNA from the remains of dozens of skeletal samples, and managed to identify 23 males and 15 females. Based on populations living today, these individuals fit into three distinct genetic groups. One group (23 skeletons, both male and female) had ancestries typical of contemporary South Asians; their remains were deposited at the lake between the 7th and 10th centuries. Some skeletons were more ancient than others, suggesting that many were interred at the lake lifetimes apart. Then, perhaps 1,000 years or so later, between the 17th and 20th centuries, two more genetic groups appeared within the lake: 1 individual of East Asian-related ancestry and, curiously, 14 people of eastern Mediterranean ancestry. There’s no evidence of bacterial infections, so an epidemic was probably not to blame. Perhaps the challenging high-altitude environment proved fatal. An earlier study, of five skeletal samples, found three with unhealed compression fractures, perhaps inflicted by huge hailstones, although that conclusion is open to debate. The individuals included children and elderly adults, but none were family relatives. If accounts of their journeys exist somewhere, none have been uncovered so far. The researchers note that Roopkund Lake is situated on a route known to modern-day Hindu pilgrims, so perhaps some of the South Asian individuals died while taking part. But that is less likely to explain the presence of individuals from the distant eastern Mediterranean. “Maybe the site held significance for groups with various religious beliefs,” said Cat Jarman, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bristol in England who was not part of the research team. Maybe some of the skeletons were brought for burial, possibly to be left in the lake. Or maybe there were ill-fated explorers — driven by a desire to see a spectacular mountain range, killed by their own curiosity. Archaeology is full of such enigmatic sites, Dr. Reich said, and when science comes along and digs in, “it enriches the story in immeasurable ways.”
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