Hundreds of people died at this Himalayan lake and nobody knows why

Roopkund Lake has a haunting history – but can science shed light on this mystery? Check out the truth behind this skeleton lake, newly uncovered.

Sep 20, 2019 |
3 min read

Even though technology has advanced beyond even the dreams of the Jetsons, mysteries are remaining in the world. One of them includes the aptly-named Skeleton Lake, nestled in the grasp of the Himalayas.

This small, glacial lake is more than an ecosystem thriving at one of the highest elevations on earth. It is also a veritable graveyard. The lake is full to the brim with the remains of individuals who died over 1,000 years ago – and whose deaths remain unexplained.

The story of Skeleton Lake

“Skeleton Lake” is the nickname several tourists have bestowed upon the Himalayan Roopkund Lake. The attribution was a natural one, as locals and tourists alike are unable to walk near the lake without coming across several human remains.

At 16,400 feet above sea level, this lake is not a new discovery, but rather a mysterious site that was initially discovered in the 1940s. Even so, its secrets remain unknown to modern historians and ecologists.

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The start of the horror story

Up unto the release of the latest study regarding the lake, there have been several theories as to why so many individuals would have failed to make it away from the lake’s shores alive.

The good news is that the answer probably isn’t ghosts. Instead, it was originally theorized that a hail storm caught a troop of travelers unawares in roughly 800 CE. Several unhealed fractures are decorating the bones that have upheld this claim for the last half-decade.

Another theory has been presented by the local population. This theory claims that the skeletons at Roopkund Lake all belong to members of an army led by General Zorawar Singh Kahluria.

Kahluria led a failed invasion of Tibet in 1841, only to have his forces repelled. While the presence of female skeletons at the lake has challenged this theory, it is still possible that some military event led to the use of the lake as a mass grave.

The latest study

Both of these theories have come across a new challenger. Harvard University doctoral student, Eadaoin Harney, released a study on September 17, 2019, that assesses DNA extracted from 38 of the skeletons found at Roopkund Lake.

Harney’s analysis suggests that the skeletons did not amass at the lake during one cataclysmic event, but rather that multiple groups of people happened to perish at the same lake over the course of several decades.

Harney’s team elaborates, saying that “the Roopkund skeletons belong to three genetically distinct groups that were deposited during multiple events, separated in time by approximately 1,000 years.” Not only, then, does this argue that the skeletons did not all belong to the same party, but it expands on the deathly history of the lake.

The three groups Harney’s team identified consist of segments from three distinct timelines. Roopkund_A, the first group, contains 23 individuals of South Asian ancestry.

These skeletons dated between 675 and 769 CE, as well as between 894 and 985 CE. While considered part of the same ethnic group, that time gap suggests another division that Harney’s team is excited to explore.

The second population is much younger than their locational cousins. This group, Roopkund_B, consisted of 14 individuals of eastern Mediterranean descent. These individuals had their skeletons dated to 1800.

The final group consisted of a lone figure, a man of East Asian descent. While his genetics separate him from the Mediterranean party, his skeleton dates to roughly the same time as theirs, allowing for a speculative connection.

The draw of Roopkund Lake

What brought all of these different people to the same lake some thousand years apart? Hindu Pilgrims must pass by the lake on the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, which may explain why Roopkund_A’s bodies were found in the area. The Mediterranean group, however, may have consisted of Ottoman tourists.

It is the holes in this story and study – thorough as it may be – that continue to contribute to the intrigue of Roopkund Lake. While people like Harney and his team are now closer to understanding the specificities of the lake’s undead populous, they are yet to tease out the visitor’s intentions – and why it was that they were never able to leave.

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