Any time you find a body of water with “Skeleton” in its name, you can safely bet there’s an unusual story behind it. You can also assume that the myth and the science usually overlap, with science eventually winning with a logical explanation for the description. That’s what makes Skeleton Lake in India so unusual and mysterious – scientists recently conducted DNA tests on some of the hundreds of remains discovered at the bottom of the lake and found that they came from many places other than India and over a span of a thousand years. What’s the real secret of Skeleton Lake in the Himalayas?
“The whole place was littered with scores of human bodies. Flesh like inflated rubber was sticking to most of the bodies. Their grinning faces made the scene still more hideous. Our porters were so much terrified at this gruesome site that they at once took to their heels, thinking that they had landed in a ghost land.”
In 1942, forest ranger H.K. Madhwal, on a hunt for unusual plants in Uttarakhand at an elevation of 16,000 feet (4.9 km) in the Himalayas, found what is now known as Roopkund Lake – a 500 square foot (47 sq meters) lake about seven feet deep that is normally hidden under snow. His porters probably wished it was still snowing instead of stumbling onto the remains of hundreds of people. Madhwal reported the find but no tests were made until 1956 due to World War II. By that time, the remains had been disturbed by avalanches and earthquakes and were scattered in and around the lake. The initial research speculated that the skeletons came from one or two mass death events of local natives which occurred 500-800 years ago.
Indian mythology offers an alternate explanation for the skeletons. The mountain is named for the goddess Nanda Devi, who was said to be prone to mood swings. When King Jasdhawal of Kannauj and his pregnant Queen Balampa brought dancers with them on a pilgrimage, it violated Nanda’s rule against music and women of lower castes on pilgrimages, so she pushed the dancers into the underworld and swept the rest of the party into the lake with a storm.
New DNA tests conducted over the past decade knock both of these theories out of the water, but replace them with a bigger mystery, starting with where the people in Skeleton Lake were from.
“We report genome-wide ancient DNA for 38 skeletons from Roopkund Lake, and find that they cluster into three distinct groups. A group of 23 individuals have ancestry that falls within the range of variation of present-day South Asians. A further 14 have ancestry typical of the eastern Mediterranean.”
A new study published in Nature Communications outlines the findings, which show a mix of backgrounds that include relatives of present-day Indians mixed with relatives pf people in present-day Crete and Greece and one related to Southeast Asians. But before the researchers could begin to figure out what brought these diverse cultures over such long distances to this tiny lake high in the Himalayas, they uncovered a second mystery.
“Radiocarbon dating indicates that the skeletons were not deposited at the same time, as previously assumed. Instead, the study finds that the two major genetic groups were actually deposited approximately 1000 years apart. First, during the 7th-10th centuries CE, individuals with Indian-related ancestry died at Roopkund, possibly during several distinct events. It was not until sometime during the 17th-20th centuries that the other two groups, likely composed of travelers from the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia arrived at Roopkund Lake.”
Senior study author Niraj Rai of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India, said in the study's press release that these DNA results just muddied the waters of Skeleton Lake, giving no clues to what killed the people, why they had come there from so many different areas and why over such a long time period, and continued to travel there – and die there – until just a few hundred years ago.
There are believed to be hundreds more skeletons in Roopkund Lake waiting to be discovered and the Indian government has banned all but scientific travel to it. Will the mystery of Skeleton Lake ever be solved?
For now, a moody goddess may be the most believed explanation.