Perhaps one of the most confounding mysteries of recent times concerns the tranquil, situated high in the Indian section of the Himalayas. For excellent reasons this remote and environmentally hostile location has gained the ominous name ‘skeleton lake’.
The pool of tranquil water is found hidden among snow-capped mountain peaks at 5000 metres above sea level. For the sake of reference consider that the world’s highest situated capital city is La Paz in Bolivia, at a very respectable 3650 metres. Most visitors to La Paz will report some degree of difficulty breathing, while others suffer episodes of fainting. Hiking up to Roopkund Lake can then be considered something of extreme activity, not for the faint of heart (and undoubtedly ill-advised for those with known heart conditions).
Despite this somewhat off-putting geographic situation we know that many people have passed this way, most will be Hindu pilgrims making the journey past Roopkund Lake as they head onwards to a northern Indian spiritual sanctuary dedicated to their goddess Nanda Devi. It is not, however, the footprints of pilgrims in the snow that act as primary evidence for human activity around the lake.
If you were brave, or mad, enough to make the journey yourself and decided to take a closer look into the sparkling mountain waters the first evidence of other people would be the crunching of their bones beneath your feet as you reached the lakeside. The scattered remains of several hundred people surround the small lake, and beneath the cold waters are yet more of them.
We might suspect that some time long ago a group of Indian pilgrims had been caught out in a storm near this pool of water, eventually dying from the cold. Over subsequent years rain and wind could gradually carry their bones downwards and into the lake itself. This would make a lot of sense were it not for the fact many of the bones come from different periods and even completely different populations.
A DNA analysis has begun to unravel some of the mysteries of Skeleton Lake, and we know that indeed some of these people were South Asians as would be expected. DNA extracted from 38 sets of skeletons revealed that at least 23 individuals were as were from South Asian backgrounds. Most of these poor souls seem to have lost their lives high in these unforgiving mountains around 1,200 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating. The researchers speculate that these may well have been pilgrims caught up in some type of unexpected catastrophe such as a powerful earthquake, but truthfully it is still unknown and there are problems with that hypothesis.
While Roopkund Lake is undoubtedly situated on the present-day Nanda Devi Raj Jat pilgrimage route, and event which occurs every 12 years. There is reliable evidence to support the use of this passage by those persons gathering for this celebratory act of worship going back to the late-19th century. Before that, at most, there are only inscriptions found in some nearby temples which suggest the rituals involved may go back to the 8th and 10th centuries. It is far less than sure that there really were groups of pilgrims performing this activity 1200 years ago.
Where the study started to get especially weird was once the scientists realised that there was a second distinct group of people involved with the mass of bones. It became clear that 14 of the skeletons belonged to a party of Europeans who had been in the region about 220 years ago, separated by a full one thousand years from the first party.
The detailed DNA analysis indicated that these Europeans had likely originated from the Mediterranean region, probably mainland Greece or Crete. Making the trip from Greece to the ominous realm of Bone Lake required a journey of some 5,000 kilometres, with an incredible amount of mountain hiking at high altitude. Who were these mysterious people that made such a staggering journey, and why were they compelled to pit themselves against such hardships? Where were they going?
“We were extremely surprised to find Mediterranean ancestry at such a harsh geographical location,” says paleogeneticist Niraj Rai of Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India.
One initial suggestion was that this group might have been made up of people descended from the local Indo-Greek populations that date back to the time of Alexander the Great, groups that are suspected of having contributed genes to the modern peoples such as the Kalash. On consideration this was rejected as it did not make sense to have such genetic isolation in a population resident in the region for centuries, the party should have shown apparent admixture with local South Asian peoples (just as do the Kalash). Even if there had been some pocket of truly isolated Europeans in the Himalayan region that only married within their population, there should have been signs of inbreeding, which leads to lower genetic diversity.
Another theory was that perhaps the bones might be from a military party on an explorative mission, but the fact that the numbers of male and female remains were so balanced really did not fit with that idea. There is certainly no evidence that the Greek army was sending groups of mixed sex patrols into the Himalayas some two centuries ago. Conversely, the team also found no evidence of close familial relationships among the sequenced individuals, this strongly contests any possibility it involved the relocation of family groups.
It is well established that disease epidemics can prompt unexpected and desperate movements of people, even into inhospitable places. The research team explored the possibility that perhaps some of the individuals might be infected with a pathogen, something which eventually overcame the entire group. A careful investigation found nothing to support no support the idea that the people had died in an epidemic. It should be noted that scientists do not consider this possibility entirely ruled out as it may be that the signature of the disease was no longer possible to detect in the desiccated bones.
Exactly why a party of genetically unrelated Greeks, seemingly in good health, would march up into the high Himalayas together at risk of life and limb remains a mystery. Could they have been passing Roopkund Lake on route to one of Tibetan Buddhism’s seven, legendary, hidden spiritual kingdoms of the Himalayas?
The only thing we know for sure is they unless they were planning to end up in the Lake of Bones, they never reached their intended destination.