Stephanie Pappas – Live Science Contributor, tries to uncover the mystery of the bones found in a remote Himalayan lake. February 2021.
High in the Indian Himalayas, a four-to-five-day trek from the nearest village, sits an unassuming glacial lake called Roopkund. The spot is beautiful, a dollop of jewel-toned water amid rough gravel and scree, but hardly out of the ordinary for the rugged landscape — except for the hundreds of human bones scattered within and around the lake.
These bones, belonging to between 300 and 800 people, have been a mystery since a forest ranger first reported them to the broader world in 1942. Lately, though, the mystery has only deepened. In 2019, a new genetic analysis of the ancient DNA in the bones, detailed in the journal Nature Communications, found that at least 14 of the people who died at the lake probably weren’t from South Asia. Instead, their genes match those of modern-day people of the eastern Mediterranean.
What’s more, these bones were far newer than most of the others at the lake, which date to around 800; the people with apparent Mediterranean heritage seem to instead have died around 1800. So what on Earth was a group from the Mediterranean doing above 16,500 feet (5,029 meters) in a far-flung corner of the Himalayas? And how did they die?
Those questions are at the heart of a new article in The New Yorker by Douglas Preston, as well as a subsequent webinar discussion led by Preston and Princeton University anthropologist Agustín Fuentes and hosted by the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico.
The story of Roopkund illustrates the need for multiple lines of evidence when investigating the past. The bones alone are mystifying: They belong to both men and women, mostly young adults, who seem to have died in several bouts, perhaps over dozens or hundreds of years.
Oral histories passed down by the villagers nearby offer more illumination. The lake is on a pilgrimage trail for Nanda Devi, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Parvati. According to local legend, a distant king once angered Nanda Devi, causing her to unleash drought upon his kingdom. To appease the goddess, the king set off on a pilgrimage that took him and his entourage past Roopkund, in what is now the state of Uttarakhand. But the foolish king brought dancers and other luxuries on the trek, intensifying Nanda Devi’s rage. She conjured a terrible hailstorm and killed the entire party, the legend goes.