DNA study deepens mystery of lake full of skeletons

Hundreds of bodies at Roopkund Lake belonged to pilgrims who perished in a Himalayan storm more than a thousand years ago—or so researchers thought.

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Human bones are scattered across the shores of Roopkund Lake in the Himalayas.

Roopkund, a remote lake high in the Indian Himalaya, is home to one of archaeology’s spookiest mysteries: the skeletons of as many as 800 people. Now, a study published today in Nature Communications attempts to unravel what happened at “Skeleton Lake”—but the results raise more questions than answers.

In the early 2000s, preliminary DNA studies had suggested that the people who died at Roopkund were of South Asian ancestry, and radiocarbon dates from around the site cluster at 800 A.D., a sign that they all died in a single event.

Now, full genomic analyses from 38 sets of skeletal remains upend that story. The new results show that there were 23 people with south Asian ancestry at Roopkund, but they died during one or several events between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. What’s more, the Roopkund skeletons contain another group of 14 victims who died there a thousand years later—likely in a single event.

And unlike the earlier South Asian skeletons, the later group at Roopkund had a genetic ancestry tied to the Mediterranean—Greece and Crete, to be exact...

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