History Podcasts

Why Does This Remote Glacial Lake Contain Hundreds of Skeletons?

Why Does This Remote Glacial Lake Contain Hundreds of Skeletons?

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Ever since a British forest guide first stumbled on Roopkund Lake in northern India in 1942, experts have struggled to understand how hundreds of human skeletons ended up in this small, shallow glacial lake, which sits in a valley more than 16,000 feet above sea level.

Over the years, various theories have surfaced to explain who the skeletons might belong to, as well as when and how they made their way into “Skeleton Lake,” as Roopkund is known.

At first, people thought they might be the remains of Japanese soldiers who died crossing through the Himalayas during World War II—but the bones were too old for that. Others suggested a natural disaster, an epidemic of disease or a mass ritual suicide. According to one leading theory, a sudden and severe hailstorm struck a group of unsuspecting pilgrims, sending giant ice balls smashing into their heads and shoulders.

Now, DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating research has upended much of the prevailing wisdom—and raised new questions—about the bones in Roopkund Lake. In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers linked 38 skeletons from the lake to three distinct groups of individuals, including 23 men and women of South Asian ancestry, 14 with genes associated with the eastern Mediterranean region and one individual with Southeast Asian-related DNA.

But DNA isn’t the only thing that separates the groups from each other. While the researchers dated the skeletons with South Asian ancestry to around 800 A.D., the remains of the eastern Mediterranean group and the Southeast Asian individual were much younger, from around 1800. These findings cast doubt on the idea that a single catastrophic event deposited all the skeletons of Roopkund Lake, suggesting they were instead placed there on different occasions, some 1,000 years apart.

Earlier DNA testing of another set of bones from Roopkund Lake indicated the presence of related members of a family or tribe, as well as another group that was smaller in stature. From similar head wounds found on the skeletons, which were all dated to A.D. 850, scientists concluded that a hailstorm had killed the entire group. This theory intriguingly mirrored a local legend, which held that the mountain goddess Nanda Devi had sent a fierce hailstorm to punish a group of pilgrims who had defiled her sacred ground by playing music and dancing.

Researchers in the new study believe a mass death during a religious pilgrimage might well explain the presence of at least some of the skeletons in the first group they identified, of South Asian ancestry. But they have more questions about the second group of individuals, whose DNA indicates they were from the eastern Mediterranean, where Hindu religious practices were not common.

“Whether they were participating in a pilgrimage, or were drawn to Roopkund Lake for other reasons, is a mystery,” the researchers write. Future investigation will focus on archival research, aimed at finding any potential reports of sizable groups of foreign travelers dying in the Himalayas in the past few centuries.

As Roopkund Lake remains frozen for much of the year and is accessible only via an arduous multi-day trek into the Himalayas, scientists believe there could still be many more skeletons yet to be found. As the lake’s fame has grown, however, tourists have been taking bones away as souvenirs, lending increased urgency to efforts to preserve and continue to learn from this remote and mysterious site.

Truth behind mystery skeleton lake that’s riddled with hundreds of bones

Mystery surrounds a skeleton lake filled with hundreds of bones which emerge from melted slow every year.

The glacial lake, called Roopkund, sits high up in the Indian Himalayas at 16,500ft above sea level.

The remote site in Uttarakhand, India, can take five days to trek to from the nearest village.

Within its depths lie hundreds of human bones, which are also scattered around its edge.

Although it remains frozen for most of the year, when the snow melts the skeletons emerge.

They are thought to belong to between 600 and 800 humans.

The human remains, some of which are well preserved, were first found by a British forest ranger in 1942.

To this day, it is unknown exactly where they are from and why they are there.

But one theory suggests extreme weather killed many of them.

The lake, which spans about 130ft (40metres) across, lies at the bottom of a steep slope on Trisul, a group of three peaks.

No weapons were found at the lake, which is not located on a trade route.

There was also no evidence of any ancient bacterial pathogen which could suggest disease killed them.

Most of the skeletons are believed to date back to around 800.

A Hindu pilgrimage trail which passes by the site could explain why people were travelling nearby, the BBC reports.

The route honours Nanda Devi, a manifestation of Parvati, a supreme goddess in Hinduism.

Experts think some of the skeletons found at the lake may have come from a “mass death” during a pilgrimage event.

Some had skull fractures which may have come from blunt-force trauma.

According to LiveScience, one theory is they were caught on a ridge above the lake in storms and deadly hail.

Most could have died of hypothermia and exposure, with their bodies rolling downhill towards the lake.

But a 2019 study found at least 14 people who died there were probably not even from South Asia – but could have been from the eastern Mediterranean area in modern Europe.

Scientists said genetic analysis also revealed they likely died around 1800.

It means the theory of a deadly storm does not explain the presence of Europeans, leaving remaining questions.

Eadaoin Harney, from Harvard University, told the BBC: "It is still not clear what happened at Roopkund Lake, but we can now be certain that the deaths of these individuals cannot be explained by a single event.

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.

The Mystery of Hindu ‘Skeleton Lake’ Gets Deeper (Post No.6909)

Icy Roopkund Lake Location of Roopkund Lake


British Summer Time uploaded in London – 7-13 am

Hundreds of skeletons are scattered around a site high in the Himalayas, and a new study overturns a leading theory about how they got there.

Science magazines around the world have published today (21-8-2019) the latest results of their studies about the Hindu Mystery Lake in the Himalayas.

I have collected the details from various reports.

The Roopkund lake at an altitude of 16,500 ft in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand has hundreds of ancient human skeletons around its shores.

Untangling a few knots on the enigmatic skeleton lake mystery, scientists on Tuesday reported that people belonging to three distinct ethnicities — Indians, Greeks and a lone South East Asian individual — travelled to the icy lake in the Himalayas

The Roopkund lake at an altitude of 16,500 ft in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand remains a puzzle to science for more than 60 years, with barely any explanations about hundreds of ancient human skeletons around its shores

skeletons in icy lake

Biomolecular analyses of Roopkund skeletons show Mediterranean migrants in Indian Himalaya

A large-scale study conducted by an international team of scientists has revealed that the mysterious skeletons of Roopkund Lake—once thought to have died during a single catastrophic event—belong to genetically highly distinct groups that died in multiple periods in at least two episodes separated by 1000 years. The study, published this week in Nature Communications, involved an international team of 28 researchers from institutions in India, the United States and Europe.

Situated at over 5000 meters above sea level in the Himalayan Mountains of India, Roopkund Lake has long puzzled researchers due to the presence of skeletal remains from several hundred ancient humans, scattered in and around the lake‘s shores, earning it the nickname Skeleton Lake or Mystery Lake.

“Roopkund Lake has long been subject to speculation about who these individuals were, what brought them to Roopkund Lake, and how they died,” says senior author Niraj Rai, of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India, who began working on the Roopkund skeletons when he was a post-doctoral scientist at the CSIR Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, India.

The current publication, the final product of a more than decade-long study that presents the first whole genome ancient DNA data from India, reveals that the site has an even more complex history than imagined.

800 skeletons may be there

First ancient DNA data from India shows diverse groups at Roopkund Lake

Ancient DNA obtained from the skeletons of Roopkund Lake—representing the first ancient DNA ever reported from India—reveals that they derive from at least three distinct genetic groups.

“We first became aware of the presence of multiple distinct groups at Roopkund after sequencing the mitochondrial DNA of 72 skeletons. While many of the individuals possessed mitochondrial haplogroups typical of present-day Indian populations, we also identified a large number of individuals with haplogroups that would be more typical of populations from West Eurasia,” says co-senior author Kumarasamy Thangaraj of CCMB, who started the project more than a decade ago, in an ancient DNA clean lab that he and then-director of CCMB Lalji Singh (deceased) built to study Roopkund.

Whole-genome sequencing of 38 individuals revealed that there were at least three distinct groups among the Roopkund skeletons.

1.The first group is composed of 23 individuals with ancestries that are related to people from present-day India, who do not appear to belong to a single population, but instead derived from many different groups.

2.Surprisingly, the second largest group is made up of 14 individuals with ancestry that is most closely related to people who live in the eastern Mediterranean, especially present-day Crete and Greece.

3. A third individual has ancestry that is more typical of that found in Southeast Asia. “We were extremely surprised by the genetics of the Roopkund skeletons. The presence of individuals with ancestries typically associated with the eastern Mediterranean suggests that Roopkund Lake was not just a site of local interest, but instead drew visitors from across the globe,” says first author Éadaoin Harney of Harvard University.

skeletons of three ethnic groups

In a kinder world, archaeologists would study only formal cemeteries, carefully planned and undisturbed.

But such an ideal burial ground wouldn’t have the eerie appeal of Skeleton Lake in Uttarakhand, India, where researchers suspect the bones of as many as 500 people lie. The lake, which is formally known as Roopkund, is miles above sea level in the Himalayas and sits along the route of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, a famous festival and pilgrimage. Bones are scattered throughout the site: Not a single skeleton found so far is intact.


Since a forest ranger stumbled across the ghostly scene during World War II, explanations for why hundreds of people died there have abounded. These unfortunates were invading Japanese soldiers they were an Indian army returning from war they were a king and his party of dancers, struck down by a righteous deity. A few years ago, a group of archaeologists suggested, after inspecting the bones and dating the carbon within them, that the dead were travelers caught in a lethal hailstorm around the ninth century.

In a new study published today in Nature Communications, an international team of more than two dozen archaeologists, geneticists, and other specialists dated and analyzed the DNA from the bones of 37 individuals found at Roopkund. They were able to suss out new details about these people, but if anything, their findings make the story of this place even more complex. The team determined that the majority of the deceased indeed died 1,000 or so years ago, but not simultaneously. And a few died much more recently, likely in the early 1800s. Stranger still, the skeletons’ genetic makeup is more typical of Mediterranean heritage than South Asian.

“It may be even more of a mystery than before,” says David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard and one of the senior authors of the new paper. “It was unbelievable, because the type of ancestry we find in about a third of the individuals is so unusual for this part of the world.”

Roopkund is the sort of place archaeologists call “problematic” and “extremely disturbed.” Mountaineers have moved and removed the bones and, researchers suspect, most of the valuable artifacts. Landslides probably scattered the skeletons, too. Miriam Stark, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was not involved in the research, pointed out that, unlike most archaeological sites, Roopkund is “not within a cultural context,” like a religious site or even a battlefield. That makes the new study “a really useful case study of how much information you can milk” from an imperfect data set, she says.

From a scientific standpoint, the only convenient thing about Roopkund is its frigid environment, which preserved not only the bones, but the DNA inside them, and even, in some cases, bits of clothing and flesh. That same environment can make the site difficult to study.

Veena Mushrif-Tripathy, an archaeologist at Deccan College in Pune, India, was part of an expedition to Roopkund in 2003. She says that even at base camp, which was about 2,300 feet below the lake, the weather was dangerous and turned quickly. To reach Roopkund, the party had to climb to a ridge above the lake and then slide down to it, because the slopes surrounding the lake are so steep.

Mushrif-Tripathy never actually reached the lake she was stuck at base camp with altitude sickness. “That was one of my biggest … regrets,” she says. “Still today, I am not over that.”

As Fernando Racimo, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen, points out, ancient-DNA studies commonly focus on the global movements of human populations over thousands of years. The new study, in contrast, is “a nice example of how ancient-DNA studies could not only inform us about major migration events,” Racimo says, “but it can also tell smaller stories that would have not been possible to elucidate otherwise.” Stark says that seeing geneticists and archaeologists collaborating to ask nuanced questions is refreshing. “A lot of the time it seems like the geneticists are just performing a service,” she says, to prove the hunches of anthropologists or historical linguists about where a specimen really came from. “And that’s not what we should be asking.”

To Kathleen Morrison, the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Pennsylvania, the least interesting thing about the specimens at Roopkund is where in the world their DNA says they came from. She points out that a Hellenic kingdom existed in the Indian subcontinent for about 200 years, beginning in 180 b.c. “The fact that there’s some unknown group of Mediterranean European people is not really a big revelation,” she says. She also cautions that radiocarbon dating gets less and less accurate the closer specimens get to the present day, so the early-1800s date assigned to the Roopkund specimens with Mediterranean heritage might not be perfectly accurate.

Besides, knowing that some of the bones at Roopkund came from a slightly unusual population still doesn’t shake the fundamental mystery: how hundreds of people’s remains ended up at one remote mountain lake. Reich and Mushrif-Tripathy are both confident that the skeletons were not moved to the site. Mushrif-Tripathy believes that the people whose bones she helped study simply “lost their way” and “got stuck” near the lake during bad weather. As Reich points out, it’s possible that remains scattered around the area gradually fell into the lake during landslides.

Morrison, though, doesn’t fully buy this explanation. “I suspect that they’re aggregated there, that local people put them in the lake,” she says. “When you see a lot of human skeletons, usually it’s a graveyard.”

Nobody Knows Why Hundreds of People Died at This Creepy Himalayan Lake

Hundreds of people mysteriously died over a millennium at “Skeleton Lake” in the Himalayas according to a new study, making the creepy location even more mysterious.

A small glacial lake nestled in the world’s highest mountain range is the site of hundreds of unexplained deaths spanning more than 1,000 years, according to a new study.

Roopkund Lake, also known as “Skeleton Lake” because it is cluttered with human bones, has perplexed visitors for decades. Located over 16,400 feet above sea level in the Indian Himalayas, it was rediscovered during the 1940s by a forest ranger. But the shallow lake was clearly known to ancient travelers, many of whom never made it out alive.

Nobody knows what killed all these people at such a remote location. Until now, the leading theory was that a brutal hailstorm pummelled all of the travelers to death at the same time around 800 CE in a single catastrophic event, which might explain the unhealed compression fractures found on some of the bones. While deadly hail may account for some of the fatalities, new evidence strongly suggests that these people met their deaths in multiple different events at the lake across the centuries.

In a study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, a team led by Éadaoin Harney, a PhD student in evolutionary biology at Harvard University, analyzed DNA extracted from 38 skeletons. This analysis revealed that many different populations experienced mortal incidents at the lake, including one that occurred as late as the 19th century.

“We find that the Roopkund skeletons belong to three genetically distinct groups that were deposited during multiple events, separated in time by approximately 1,000 years,” Harney’s team said in the study. “These findings refute previous suggestions that the skeletons of Roopkund Lake were deposited in a single catastrophic event.”

The earliest group of deceased travellers identified by the researchers, called Roopkund_A, contained 23 men and women from a diverse range of South Asian ancestries. This population was already known to have perished some 1,200 years ago, but radiocarbon dating showed that their deaths were likely not caused by a single violent storm as previously proposed.

Some of the Roopkund_A individuals were dated to earlier ranges of about 675-769 CE, while others were dated to between 894-985 CE. The gap in time suggests “that even these individuals may not have died simultaneously,” the team said.

Even more astonishing is the discovery of a second population, called Roopkund_B, which died just centuries ago, around 1800. This group contained 14 men and women of eastern Mediterranean descent, who were most genetically similar to the people of present-day Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. The third population is comprised of a sole individual, called Roopkund_C, who was a man of East Asian descent that died at the same time as the Roopkund_B group.

“Our study deepens the Roopkund mystery in many ways,” said study co-author Niraj Rai, head of the Ancient DNA Lab at Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in India, in an email. At the same time, the team was able to rule out common “speculations about the ancestry of Roopkund individuals,” Rai said.

For instance, since the 1950s, there has been a local theory that the skeletons were left by the fleeing army of general Zorawar Singh Kahluria, who was killed in an attempted invasion of Tibet in 1841. This explanation is challenged by the new discovery of several women at the site, who were unlikely to have been included in a military expedition.

The hailstorm theory is still plausible for some of the victims, and the team plans to examine the fractured skulls in their next study, Rai said.

Still, we don’t know how these groups ended up at such an inaccessible location in the first place. Roopkund Lake lies on the route of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, a Hindu pilgrimage, which may have been observed as early as 1,200 years ago. For now, that is the most plausible explanation for the presence of at least some of the Roopkund_A individuals, the team said.

The remains of the other populations are much harder to explain. The study concludes that the Mediterranean individuals, who did not seem to have close familial ties to each other, were probably born under Ottoman rule.

“As suggested by their consumption of a predominantly terrestrial, rather than marine-based diet, they may have lived in an inland location, eventually traveling to and dying in the Himalayas,” the team said. “Whether they were participating in a pilgrimage, or were drawn to Roopkund Lake for other reasons, is a mystery.”

“Mystery” seems to be the operative word for anything to do with Roopkund Lake. While the site has become a destination for researchers and tourists—who have lived to tell the tale of their visits—the secrets of those who never left remain largely unknown.

Himalayan Lake Mystery


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.

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 later South Asian skeletons, the earlier group at Roopkund had a genetic ancestry tied to the Mediterranean—Greece and Crete, to be exact. (An additional individual, who died at the same time as the Mediterranean group, had east Asian ancestry.) None of the tested individuals were related to each other, and additional isotopic studies confirm that the South Asian and Mediterranean groups ate different diets.

Why was a Mediterranean group at Roopkund, and how did they meet their end? Researchers don’t know and aren’t speculating.

Thirty years – In search of General Zorawar Singh (1786 – 1841)

During a journey performed over thirty years I hope to continue to discover more places where the General had once stepp.

I was fortunate to be schooled at The Doon School, Dehradun (India), an institution that valued the importance of growth by encouraging us to trek in the Himalayas. In 1983, when I was seventeen, a group of senior students successfully trekked to Roopkund, bringing samples of human bones.

With a sense of curiosity, I asked my housemaster, Mr. Vaishnav, “Why are so many skeletons found around this remote lake?”

Mr. Vaishnav replied, “These are believed to be the remains of General Zorawar Singh’s soldiers who got lost in the Himalayas while returning from the Tibetan plateau.”

Who was General Zorawar Singh?

The plains of Indian sub-continent since 9th century had been continuously invaded, looted and ruled by many dynasties. It was only with the rise of the Sikh kingdom in Punjab, during the regime of Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839), the “Lion of Punjab”, this trend was reversed.

Ranjit Singh’s military career can be divided into three phases.

  • 1799 – 1809 : Consolidation of the Sikh forces, leading to capture of Lahore.
  • 1809 – 1823 : Expansion of empire to include Multan, Peshawar and Kashmir. It is in this phase that Hari Singh Nalwa, his trusted General extended the empires reach till Khyber pass, along Afghanistan border. This was a historic achievement as only thereafter no foreign invasion to Indian sub-continent happened from Afghanistan.
  • 1823 – 1839 : Consolidation and further expansion. It is in this phase that General Zorawar Singh, operating under the military leadership of Gulab Singh (the Dogra minister in Ranjit Singh’s cabinet who was asked to manage the affairs of Kashmir), led expansionary military expeditions to Ladakh (1834), Baltistan (1840) and Tibet (1841).

The British had conquered the entire India, falling East of river Sutlej and were now limited by the treaty of Amritsar, signed with Maharajah Ranjit Singh, that stopped them from making a westward advance into Punjab and beyond. It also limited Ranjit Singh from capturing territories east of river Sutlej. The only option for expansion of the Sikh kingdom was North of Kashmir into Ladakh.

Zorawar Singh was born at Khalur, now in the state of Himachal Pradesh, which was then a part of Punjab. At a very young age, he rose to become a General in Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s army.

In 1834, General Zorawar Singh led an expedition to Ladakh via Kishtwar, Dachin, Marwah, Warwan, crossing the Lanvila pass at 14,500 feet. At Suru and Leh valley, his forces constructed forts for administration of the region.

In October 1835, Zorawar returned to Kishtwar but on hearing reports of rebellion, he immediately turned back and this time took a shorter but more arduous route via Umasila pass at 17,300 feet into Zanskar and Leh, which he reached in ten days. An army crossing at these heights, especially in winter month of November, is one of it’s kind in the annals of world military history. Inclusion of Ladakh in Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s territory is of significant geo-political importance for the present day India. If not for the success of this expedition, with China’s conquest of Tibet in 1950, today it would be a part of China.

In 1840, Zorawar Singh led an expedition to Baltistan, which is believed to be one of the most rugged mountain regions of the world. It is situated in the Karakoram range to the south of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Since 1757, Baltistan was under the rule of Ahmed Shah Durrani of Afghanistan. If not for this expedition, Baltistan would today be a part of Afghanistan. Baltistan is the region where live the Dards along with Balti people. Dards are of European origin, believed to be descendants of the soldiers of Alexander The Great (327 BC).

Having conquered Baltistan, General Zorawar Singh returned back to Leh via the Khapalu – Chorbat – Nubra valley route. Nubra valley is a high altitude cold desert at 10,000 feet. It is on the historical silk route.

In 1841, General Zorawar Singh turned his attention to the roof of the world, which led him to Western Tibet. Crossing Pangong Tso lake at 14,300 feet, at the Ladakh – Western Tibet border, he travelled via Guge kingdom, Tholing, Purang to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar.

At Purang Valley, which lies separated from Mansarovar by the Gurla Mandhata range, his forces climbed the Gurla pass and reached Dogpacha. Here they were caught totally off-guard by the Tibetan forces. A fierce hand to hand battle resulted in the victory of Zorawar Singh, who captured the Tibetan army “Colors” flag, which till today lies in possession of the Indian Army.

Gurla Mandhata range, Tibet

After the visit to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar, General Zorawar Singh’s army turned South towards Taklakot, where a battle was fought with the Tibetan forces at the high altitude Mayum pass (17,000 feet).

In an operation lasting three and a half months, some 550 miles of Tibetan territory was captured by General Zorawar Singh.

In July 1841, GT Lushington, the British Commissioner of Kumaon in India learnt that extensive territories in Tibet have been captured. British were alarmed and decided to send Captain JD Cunningham to the Sikh Darbar in Lahore to discuss the matter as this was seen as a threat to British India. Lahore Darbar remained evasive of Cunnighams queries thus letting General Zorawar Singh have more time to complete his task.

By now the winters were fast approaching. General Zorawar Singh decided to move to Tirthapuri and prepare for the offense in the coming summer months.

While the General had everything going his way as he had sealed the Mayum pass before arrival of winters but he made a small miscalculation. He did not take into account that forces from Lhasa could also reach via the Matsang pass, which was South of Mayum pass and was negotiable even in the winter months. This was a strategic mistake. In the peak winter months, as General Zorawar Singh’s forces became complacent, the Tibetan forces attacked through Matsang pass and caught them off-guard. High altitude battle in the peak winter months against a large Tibetan force was fought. During the night the weather turned against them with a heavy snow storm. Many soldiers were frost bitten and were dying due to insufficient clothing.

On 12th December, 1841 General Zorawar Singh was hit by a bullet on his left shoulder and died at Taklakot. Even though the morale of the forces was broken, it was only by January 1842 that the last fortifications, under the command of Basti Ram (military officer of General Zorawar Singh) abandoned their positions. With him, many soldiers crossed the Tibetan plateau but only 242 of them reached Askot in Kumaon, which was in the British India territory. From here they continued the journey to Ludhiana and entered the Sikh kingdom to the east of river Sutlej.

General Zorawar Singh’s severed head was carried to Lhasa where it was placed at a thoroughfare for public viewing.

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet (General Zorawar Singh’s severed head was placed for public viewing)

The Tibetans however also recognized the valor of General Zorawar Singh and built a Chorten (Cenotaph) at Taklakot in his memory. Even today, the Tibetans call it “Singh ba Chorten” or the Cenotaph of the “Singh Warrior”.

About the soldiers who were taken into captivity, Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, who served as Tibet’s Secretary of Finance from 1930 -1950, writes on page 243 – 244 of his book, TIBET – A Political History : “Over three thousand Sikhs were killed in the course of the foray. Seven hundred Sikhs and two Ladakhi ministers were taken prisoners. The remainder of the defeated army fled…. Those prisoners wishing to return to their country were allowed to do so….. One third of the Sikhs and Ladakhi prisoners elected to remain in Tibet. The Sikhs were resettled in warmer regions of Southern Tibet by the government and many married Tibetan girls. The Sikhs are known to have introduced the cultivation of apricots, apples, grapes and peaches into the country.”

So what about the skeletons at Roopkund lake? Are these of the retreating soldiers accompanying Basti Ram, who may have lost their way and perished at the high altitude?

A recent expedition to Roopkund lake by a National Geographic team retrieved about 30 skeletons and their carbon dating has placed the time of mass death to 9th century AD.

The National Geographic documentary can be viewed at this link. Rookpkund National Geographic

While the mystery of Roopkund, through scientific investigation has negated it’s linkage to the Tibet expedition of General Zorawar Singh, but a curious conversation with Mr. Vaishnav at The Doon School in the year 1983 has sub-consciously led me to these remote places, tracing the footsteps of General Zorawar Singh.

A journey performed over thirty years and I hope to continue to discover more places where the General had once stepped.


Global Weather Machine

Journey Into Lechuguilla Cave

Population Campaigns

This image gives an idea of how massive the Purcell Lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet was at the time it flowed into what is now northernmost Idaho and dammed up Glacial Lake Missoula (visible in upper left). This view looks southeast.

Of bergs and boulders

Icebergs are big pieces of ice that break off the floating end of a glacier, then drift across the open water. Only the parts of Glacial Lake Missoula that submerged the lower ends of glaciers could have launched icebergs, and those places were few. Icebergs were scarce in Glacial Lake Missoula. They could have existed only when the lake was at its higher fillings, deep enough to float the lower ends of glaciers that emerged from valleys in the Mission Mountains, the Bitterroot Mountains, and possibly the Rattlesnake Mountains.

The deeper parts of glaciers commonly contain large amounts of sediment in all sizes, from silt to boulders the size of cars or larger. Icebergs drop that sediment as they drift or when they run aground and finally melt. A close group of boulders of different kinds of rocks is the characteristic signature of a grounded iceberg that melted long ago. Floating pack ice that forms as a lake freezes typically contains very little sediment, and it is small stuff—no boulders.

Icebergs could hardly run aground and stay grounded for very long during the years the lake level was rising. A few probably did while the lake was draining, but even then, the flood probably swept most of them along. So boulders that icebergs floated into places remote from their homes are rare in the valleys of western Montana. They are more common in some areas of Washington and Oregon, where icebergs rode in on the great floods, instead of out with the great emptyings.

With room to spare, two Empire State Buildings could have stood one atop the other against Glacial Lake Missoula's ice dam, which experts believe reached as high as 2,000 feet above water (and perhaps another 1,500 feet below).

Of mastodons and fish

It is surprising that no one has found fossils in Glacial Lake Missoula sediments—no petrified wood, no leaves, no bones. We have no tangible record of the plants and animals that lived in Glacial Lake Missoula or around its shores. But we can reasonably speculate.

The weather was very wet during the most recent ice age—plenty of rain and snow. And most geologists and biologists who have given the subject much thought agree that most of the plants that grew around Glacial Lake Missoula and most of the menagerie of animals that prowled its shores were the same species that now live in western Montana. But we have lost a few.

Mastodons, for example, were common during the most recent ice age, if we can judge from the abundance of their bones in river and glacial sediments elsewhere. They looked almost like modern elephants except that they were much larger and clothed in long hair. It's easy to imagine them trumpeting their greetings to the morning along the shores of Glacial Lake Missoula. Beavers the size of grizzly bears lived then. So did bison much larger and with much longer horns than those that so recently roamed in great herds across the high plains. Evidence elsewhere in the region makes it seem reasonable to imagine these creatures populating the shores of Glacial Lake Missoula, even if we do not have their bones.

It is especially surprising to find evidence of a great lake with no sign of fish, not even a few scattered scales. Why no fish fossils? Perhaps no fish. The summer murk of suspended rock flour probably made the lake a poor habitat for most of the kinds of fish native to western Montana. And the lake's sudden drainings surely flushed any fish that may have been around.

This image, combining USGS terrain data with a Landsat satellite image drape, shows the present-day area around Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. This was the first area hit by floods coming from Glacial Lake Missoula, which lay just beyond the center right of this image, up the Clark Fork River.

Were people there?

It would be nice to know that people were around to see Glacial Lake Missoula and its humongous floods. I would like to think that those spectacles were not entirely wasted on hairy mastodons, giant beavers, oversized bison. That may not be a forlorn hope.

Archeologists have good evidence that people lived in North America before the end of the last ice age, perhaps thousands of years before. Some of them may have known the lake and watched its great floods. But the archeologists have not yet dug up any direct evidence that would place people in the Pacific Northwest during that time. Still, we can imagine them in those landscapes, witness to an enormous lake and the horrendous floods it unleashed.

The scars on the landscape tell us something of what people might have seen as Glacial Lake Missoula filled the valleys of the Clark Fork River in western Montana, then emptied in a few days as it dumped a great flood across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. We can only imagine what they might have felt.

The Skeletons at the Lake

Genetic analysis of human remains found in the Himalayas has raised baffling questions about who these people were and why they were there.

In the winter of 1942, on the shores of a lake high in the Himalayas, a forest ranger came across hundreds of bones and skulls, some with flesh still on them. When the snow and ice melted that summer, many more were visible through the clear water, lying on the bottom. The lake, a glacial tarn called Roopkund, was more than sixteen thousand feet above sea level, an arduous five-day trek from human habitation, in a mountain cirque surrounded by snowfields and battered by storms. In the midst of the Second World War, British officials in India initially worried that the dead might be the remains of Japanese soldiers attempting a secret invasion. The apparent age of the bones quickly dispelled that idea. But what had happened to all these people? Why were they in the mountains, and when and how had they died?

In 1956, the Anthropological Survey of India, in Calcutta, sponsored several expeditions to Roopkund to investigate. A snowstorm forced the first expedition to turn back, but two months later another expedition made it and returned to Calcutta with remains for study. Carbon dating, still an unreliable innovation, indicated that the bones were between five hundred and eight hundred years old.

Indian scientists were intensely interested in the Roopkund mystery. The lake, some thought, was a place where holy men committed ritual suicide. Or maybe the dead were a detachment of soldiers from a thirteenth-century army sent by the Sultan of Delhi in an ill-fated attempt to invade Tibet, or a group of Tibet-bound traders who had lost their way. Perhaps this was hallowed ground, an open-air cemetery, or a place where victims of an epidemic were dumped to prevent contagion.

People in the villages below Roopkund had their own explanation, passed down in folk songs and stories. The villages are on the route of a pilgrimage to honor Nanda Devi, a manifestation of Parvati, a supreme goddess in Hinduism. The pilgrimage winds up through the foothills of the Trisul massif, where locals believe that the goddess lives with her husband, Shiva. It may be the longest and most dangerous pilgrimage in India, and a particularly perilous section—the Jyumra Gali, or Path of Death—runs along a ridge high above Roopkund. As the villagers tell it, long ago Nanda Devi left her home to visit a distant kingdom, where she was treated discourteously by the king and queen. Nanda Devi cursed the kingdom, unleashing drought and disaster, and infesting the milk and rice with maggots. In order to appease the goddess, the royal couple embarked on a pilgrimage. The king, who liked his entertainments, took along a bevy of dancing courtesans and musicians, in violation of the ascetic traditions of the pilgrimage. Nanda Devi was furious at the display of earthly pleasures, and she shoved the dancing girls down into the underworld. The pits into which they are said to have sunk are still visible high on a mountainside. Then, according to the legend, she sent down a blizzard of hail and a whirlwind, which swept all the pilgrims on the Path of Death into the lake. Their skeletons are a warning to those who would disrespect the goddess.

This story is retold in “Mountain Goddess,” a 1991 book by the American anthropologist William Sax. Now a professor at Heidelberg University, he stumbled upon a reference to the lake and the bodies as an undergraduate, in the nineteen-seventies, and was fascinated. He and a friend travelled to the hamlet of Wan, the settlement closest to Roopkund, where a local man agreed to guide them up the pilgrim trail to the lake. The trail climbs through deep forests, emerging above the tree line, at eleven and a half thousand feet, into meadows carpeted with wildflowers. To the north is a vast wall of Himalayan peaks, some of the highest in the world. From there, the route follows steep ridgelines and leads past an ancient stone shrine, festooned with bronze bells and tridents and containing a statue of the elephant deity Ganesha. Then, at fifteen thousand feet, it goes over a pass and up a series of switchbacks through scree to Roopkund. The lake, about a hundred and thirty feet across and ten feet deep, is an emerald jewel nestled in a bowl of rock and ice. (In Hindi, roop kund means “beautifully shaped lake.”) Almost as soon as Sax and his companions arrived, they were engulfed by a blizzard and stumbled around the bone-strewn cirque in whiteout conditions, calling for one another and nearly adding their own bodies to the charnel ground.

Exhausted and feverish, Sax barely made it back to Wan with his companions, and spent ten days recovering in his guide’s stone hut. Yet his passion for the place was undimmed. He went on to write a doctoral thesis about the local traditions surrounding Nanda Devi. In the late eighties, he went on the pilgrimage himself, the only Westerner to have done so at that time, after which he published “Mountain Goddess.” The book describes how the Himalayas, “associated for thousands of years in India’s literatures with famous pilgrimage places and powerful, ascetic renouncers,” became the setting for followers to show devotion to the goddess by “giving suffering” to their bodies.

In 2005, Sax was featured in a National Geographic documentary about the lake. The Indian media company that made the film assembled a team of archeologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and technicians from research laboratories in India and the U.K. to collect and study the bones. In the decades since Sax first visited, the lake had become a popular destination in the trekking community and the site was being ruined. Bones had been stolen others had been rearranged in fanciful patterns or piled in cairns. Almost none of the skeletons were intact, and it was impossible to tell which bones belonged together or where they had originally lain. Nature had added to the confusion, churning and fracturing the bones with rock slides and avalanches. But a recent landslide had exposed a cache of fresh bones and artifacts. Under a slab of rock, the team found the remains of a woman, bent double. The body was intact and still had skin and flesh. The scientists removed tissue samples for testing, shot video, and collected bones and artifacts. The team estimated that the area contained the remains of between three hundred and seven hundred people.

“O.K., now, who ordered the glass half empty, and who ordered the glass half full?”

The scientific analysis swiftly discounted most of the prevailing theories. These were not the remains of a lost army: the bones were from men, women, and children. Aside from a single iron spearhead, no weapons were found, and there was no trace of horses. The bones showed no evidence of battle, ritual suicide, murder, or epidemic disease. Nor was Roopkund a cemetery: most of the individuals were healthy and between eighteen and thirty-five years old. Meanwhile, the team’s geographic analysis laid to rest the idea of traders lost in the mountains, establishing that no trade route between India and Tibet had ever existed in the area. Although the Tibetan border is only thirty-five miles north of Roopkund, the mountains form an impassable barrier. Besides, no trade goods or beasts of burden were found with the bodies. Artifacts retrieved included dozens of leather slippers, pieces of parasols made of bamboo and birch bark, and bangles made of seashells and glass. Devotees of Nanda Devi carry parasols and wear bangles on the pilgrimage. The dead, it appeared, were most likely pilgrims.

DNA analysis showed that all the victims appeared to have a genetic makeup typical of South Asian origin. Bone and tissue samples were sent to Oxford University for carbon dating. The new dates, far more accurate than the 1956 ones, formed a tight cluster in the ninth century. Tom Higham, who performed the analysis, concluded that the victims had perished in a single event and had “died instantaneously within hours of one another.” Meanwhile, a team of bioarcheologists and paleopathologists noted the presence of two distinct groups: there were “rugged, tall” people with long heads and also some “medium height, lightly built, round headed” people, who displayed a curious shallow groove across the vault of the skull. The scientists concluded that the dead represented two populations: a group of tall Brahmans from the plains of India and a company of shorter, local porters, whose skulls were marked by years of carrying heavy loads with a tumpline looped over their heads.

The investigation also revealed that three or possibly four skulls had compression fractures on the crown that had probably occurred at the time of death. “It is not a weapon injury,” the researchers noted, but came “from a blow from a blunt and round heavy object.” This stretch of the Himalayas is notorious for hailstorms, which destroy crops and damage property. The team concluded that, around the year 800 A.D., a group of pilgrims were caught in a storm on the exposed ridge above Roopkund and were pummelled to death by giant hailstones. Over the years, landslides and avalanches had rolled the bodies down the steep slope into the lake and the surrounding area. Not only did the mystery of Roopkund appear to be solved it also seemed that the local tales of Nanda Devi’s wrath had originated in an actual event.

Last year, however, Nature Communications published the baffling results of a new study conducted by sixteen research institutions across three continents. Genetic analysis and new carbon dating revealed that a significant proportion of the Roopkund remains belonged to people from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, most likely near Crete, and that they had perished at the lake only a couple of centuries ago.

India is an ideal country for studying human genetics, ancient and modern. There are fewer cultural barriers to handling human biological materials than in many parts of the world, and Indian scientists have eagerly pursued research into the peopling of the subcontinent. Geneticists have sampled the DNA of hundreds of living populations, making India one of the most genetically mapped countries in the world. In 2008, David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard, made the first of many trips to the country, and visited a leading life-science research institution, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, in Hyderabad. While there, he discussed someday collaborating on a more detailed study of the Roopkund bones with the center’s director, Lalji Singh, and Kumarasamy Thangaraj, a geneticist who had headed up the previous DNA analysis. By the time work began, in 2015, the team, led by the Reich lab and the laboratory in Hyderabad, also included researchers at Pennsylvania State University, the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and the Anthropological Survey of India, where many of the Roopkund bones reside.

Not long before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the U.S., I visited Reich at Harvard Medical School. His office is a minimalist space with a whiteboard, a table, and a wall of glass looking across Avenue Louis Pasteur to the red brick façade of the Boston Latin School. Reich is a lean, fit man in his mid-forties who speaks with rapid, quiet precision. His self-deprecating manner conceals a supremely self-confident iconoclast who is not averse to toppling received wisdom, and his work has attracted criticism from some anthropologists, archeologists, and social scientists. The Reich lab, the foremost unit in the country for research into ancient DNA, is responsible for more than half the world’s published data in the field. Having so far sequenced the DNA of more than ten thousand long-dead individuals from all over the globe, the lab is almost halfway through a five-year project to create an atlas of human migration and diversity, allowing us to peer deep into our past. The work has produced startling insights into who we are as a species, where we have come from, and what we have done to one another. Hidden in the human genome is evidence of inequality, the displacement of peoples, invasion, mass rape, and large-scale killing. Under the scrutiny of science, the dead are becoming eloquent.

Last year, Reich led a team of more than a hundred researchers who published a study in Science that examined the genomes of some two hundred and seventy ancient skeletons from the Iberian Peninsula. It’s long been known that, from around 2500 to 2000 B.C., major new artistic and cultural styles flourished in Western and Central Europe. Archeologists have tended to explain this development as the result of cultural diffusion: people adopted innovations in pottery, metalworking, and weaponry from their geographic neighbors, along with new burial customs and religious beliefs. But the DNA of Iberian skeletons dating from this period of transformation told a different story, revealing what Reich describes as the “genetic scar” of a foreign invasion.

In Iberia during this time, the local type of Y chromosome was replaced by an entirely different type. Given that the Y chromosome, found only in males, is passed down from father to son, this means that the local male line in Iberia was essentially extinguished. It is likely that the newcomers perpetrated a large-scale killing of local men, boys, and possibly male infants. Any local males remaining must have been subjugated in a way that prevented them from fathering children, or were so strongly disfavored in mate selection over time that their genetic contribution was nullified. The full genetic sequencing, however, indicated that about sixty per cent of the lineage of the local population was passed on, which shows that women were not killed but almost certainly subjected to widespread sexual coercion, and perhaps even mass rape.

We can get a sense of this reign of terror by thinking about what took place when the descendants of those ancient Iberians sailed to the New World, events for which we have ample historical records. The Spanish conquest of the Americas produced human suffering on a grotesque scale—war, mass murder, rape, slavery, genocide, starvation, and pandemic disease. Genetically, as Reich noted, the outcome was very similar: in Central and South America, large amounts of European DNA mixed into the local population, almost all of it coming from European males. The same Y-chromosome turnover is also found in Americans of African descent. On average, a Black person in America has an ancestry that is around eighty per cent African and twenty per cent European. But about eighty per cent of that European ancestry is inherited from white males—genetic testimony to the widespread rape and sexual coercion of female slaves by slaveowners.

In the Iberian study, the predominant Y chromosome seems to have originated with a group called the Yamnaya, who arose about five thousand years ago, in the steppes north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. By adopting the wheel and the horse, they became powerful and fearsome nomads, expanding westward into Europe as well as east- and southward into India. They spoke proto-Indo-European languages, from which most of the languages of Europe and many South Asian languages now spring. Archeologists have long known about the spread of the Yamnaya, but almost nothing in the archeological record showed the brutality of their takeover. “This is an example of the power of ancient DNA to reveal cultural events,” Reich told me.

It also shows how DNA evidence can upset established archeological theories and bring rejected ones back into contention. The idea that Indo-European languages emanated from the Yamnaya homeland was established in 1956, by the Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas. Her view, known as the Kurgan hypothesis—named for the distinctive burial mounds that spread west across Europe—is now the most widely accepted theory about Indo-European linguistic origins. But, where many archeologists envisaged a gradual process of cultural diffusion, Gimbutas saw “continuous waves of expansion or raids.” As her career progressed, her ideas became more controversial. In Europe previously, Gimbutas hypothesized, men and women held relatively equal places in a peaceful, female-centered, goddess-worshipping society—as evidenced by the famous fertility figurines of the time. She believed that the nomads from the Caspian steppes imposed a male-dominated warrior culture of violence, sexual inequality, and social stratification, in which women were subservient to men and a small number of élite males accumulated most of the wealth and power.

The DNA from the Iberian skeletons can’t tell us what kind of culture the Yamnaya replaced, but it does much to corroborate Gimbutas’s sense that the descendants of the Yamnaya caused much greater disruption than other archeologists believed. Even today, the Y chromosomes of almost all men of Western European ancestry have a high percentage of Yamnaya-derived genes, suggesting that violent conquest may have been widespread.

The team members of the Roopkund study planned a variety of tests for the bones. DNA sequencing would show the ancestry of the victims and whether they were related to one another, and carbon dating would estimate when they died. The researchers would test for disease, and analyze the chemistry of the bones to determine the victims’ diet and where they might have grown up. Under sterile conditions, the scientists in Hyderabad drilled into long bones and teeth, producing a powder. Vials of this were sent to Harvard and to other labs in India, the United States, and Germany.

“It’s not actually that much after taxes.”

An ancient human bone is packed with DNA, but, in many cases, ninety-nine per cent or more of that is not human. It is the DNA of billions of microbes that colonized the body during the decomposition after death. To tease the tiny fraction of human DNA from this mass of microbial debris requires a chemical ballet of enormous delicacy, and the risk of contamination is high. Stray DNA molecules from people who handled the remains can ruin an entire sample.

David Reich’s lab has a “clean room” for extracting and processing DNA from human tissue. Personnel pass through a dressing area, where they don a full-body clean suit with booties and hood, double pairs of nitrile gloves (the inner one sealed to the suit with tape around the wrists), a hairnet, a face mask, and a plastic shield. The clean room is maintained at positive pressure, which keeps the airflow directed outward, to curtail the entry of airborne DNA. After anything is touched in the room, the outer pair of gloves must be stripped off and a fresh pair put on, in order to prevent the transfer of DNA from surface to surface. Intense ultraviolet light shines whenever the room is empty, to destroy stray DNA. The light is shut off when the lab is occupied, because it burns human skin and eyes.

When I visited, a technician was working on a nubbin of bone from an ancient Roman who lived in Belgium. The whine of a sandblaster filled the air as she removed excess bone from a tiny treasure chest of DNA—a spiral cavity in the inner ear called the cochlea. The bone in which the cochlea is embedded is the densest in the body, and provides the best source of preserved DNA in ancient remains. DNA this old breaks up into short strands. Getting enough to sequence requires complex processes, one of which involves placing samples in a machine that produces a polymerase chain reaction, copying the fragments up to a billion times. The lab doesn’t sequence the entire DNA molecule, much of which is repetitious and uninformative, but maps about a million key locations.

Reich had asked a graduate student in his lab, Éadaoin Harney, to take charge of the Roopkund project. Her role was to analyze the Roopkund DNA, wrangle the worldwide team, assemble the results, and write the resulting paper as its lead author. (She has since taken a job as a postdoctoral researcher at the genomics firm 23andMe.) By the middle of 2017, it was apparent that the Roopkund bones belonged to three distinct groups of people. Roopkund A had ancestry typical of South Asians. They were unrelated to one another and genetically diverse, apparently coming from various areas and groups in India. Roopkund C was a lone individual whose genome was typical of Southeast Asia. It was the Roopkund B group, a mixture of men and women unrelated to one another, that confounded everyone. Their genomes did not look Indian or even Asian. “Of all places in the world, India is one of the places most heavily sampled in terms of human diversity,” Reich told me. “We have sampled three hundred different groups in India, and there’s nothing there even close to Roopkund B.”

Harney and Reich began exploring the ancestry of the Roopkund B group, comparing the genomes with hundreds of present-day populations across Europe, Asia, and Africa. The closest match was with people from the Greek island of Crete. “It would be a mistake to say these people were specifically from Crete,” Reich said. “A very careful analysis showed they don’t match perfectly. They are clearly a population of the Aegean area.” The Roopkund B group made up more than a third of the samples tested—fourteen individuals out of thirty-eight. Since the bones at the lake were not collected systematically, the finding hinted that the Mediterranean group in total might have been quite large. One-third of three hundred, the lower estimate of the Roopkund dead, is a hundred people.

As bizarre as the result seemed, it nonetheless matched an analysis of bone collagen that the Max Planck Institute and the Harvard lab had done on the same individuals, to determine their diet. Dietary information is stored in our bones, and plants, depending on how they fix carbon during photosynthesis, create one of two chemical signatures—C3 or C4. A person who eats a diet of C3 plants, such as wheat, barley, and rice, will have isotope ratios of carbon in their bones different from those of a person eating a diet high in millets, which are C4. Sure enough, the analysis of Roopkund bone collagen revealed that, in the last ten or so years of their lives, the Roopkund A people ate a varied C3 and C4 diet, typical for much of India Roopkund B ate a mostly C3 diet, typical of the Mediterranean.

During the study, the Reich lab had divided up its bone-powder samples, sending one portion to the carbon-14-dating laboratory at Penn State. (Doing this rather than having the Penn State samples sent straight from Hyderabad was a way of insuring that the labs were working on the same individuals.) When the carbon-dating results came back, there was another surprise: there appeared to have been multiple mass-death events at Roopkund. The Roopkund A individuals probably died in three or possibly four incidents between 700 and 950 A.D. The Roopkund B group—from the Mediterranean—likely perished in a single event a thousand years later. Because carbon-14 dating is difficult to interpret for the period between 1650 and 1950, the deaths could have occurred anytime during that span, but with a slightly higher probability in the eighteenth century. The lone person of Southeast Asian ancestry in Roopkund C died around the same time.

The eighteenth-century date was so unexpected that Reich and Harney at first thought it might be a typo, or that the samples had been contaminated. Harney wrote up the findings, in a paper co-authored by twenty-seven other scientists. She told me, “We hoped that after the paper was published someone would come forward with information that would help us determine what might have happened at Roopkund—some historian or a person with knowledge of a group of European travellers who vanished in the Himalayas around that time.”

When William Sax learned of the results, he was incredulous. He had spent years in the mountain villages below the lake, among the devotees of Nanda Devi. The women consider themselves to be keepers of the goddess’s memory, and Sax had recorded and translated many of their songs and stories of the pilgrimage. He feels certain that if a large party of travellers, especially foreign travellers, had died at Roopkund in recent centuries, there would have been some record in folklore. After all, despite the new study’s surprises, the Roopkund A group was not inconsistent with the earlier findings.

“I never heard a word, not a hint of a story, no folktale or anything,” Sax told me. “And there’s absolutely no reason to be up there if they weren’t on the pilgrimage.” The idea of a group of eighteenth-century Greeks on a Hindu pilgrimage seemed far-fetched. A simpler explanation would be that the Roopkund B bones somehow got mixed up while sitting in storage. “It is quite possible that these bones were contaminated,” he said, and the researchers were simply taking their provenance on trust: “They didn’t actually collect them themselves.” Having been fascinated with the region’s way of life for four decades, he also found the scientists’ perspective lacking. “This isn’t just a story about bones,” he said. “It’s also a story about human beings and religious devotion.”

Many anthropologists and archeologists are uneasy about the incursion of genomics into their domain and suspicious of its brash certainties. “We’re not schooled in the nuances,” Reich admitted to me. “Anthropologists and geneticists are two groups speaking different languages and getting to know each other.” Research into human origins and the differences between populations is always vulnerable to misuse. The grim history of eugenics still casts a shadow over genetics—a field with limitless appeal for white supremacists and others looking to support racist views—even though, for half a century, geneticists have rejected the idea of large hereditary disparities among human populations for the great majority of traits. Genetic science was vital in discrediting racist biological theories and establishing that racial categories are ever-shifting social constructs that do not align with genetic variation. Still, some anthropologists, social scientists, and even geneticists are deeply uncomfortable with any research that explores the hereditary differences among populations. Reich is insistent that race is an artificial category rather than a biological one, but maintains that “substantial differences across populations” exist. He thinks that it’s not unreasonable to investigate those differences scientifically, although he doesn’t undertake such research himself. “Whether we like it or not, people are measuring average differences among groups,” he said. “We need to be able to talk about these differences clearly, whatever they may be. Denying the possibility of substantial differences is not for us to do, given the scientific reality we live in.”

Mysterious DNA from Skeleton Lake Baffles Scientists

Roopkund Lake is a small glacial lake 16,470 feet high in the cradle of the Trishul massif, three snow-capped mountain peaks in the Himalayas. The peaks look out over the howling landscape of Uttarakhand, India, which draws trekkers from all over the world.

Many come in the spring. That is when melting snow reveals the skeletal remains of hundreds of humans at the lake’s bottom.

The remains are the reason why many call Roopkund Lake by its more famous – and unnerving – name, Skeleton Lake.

An unpublished anthropological survey from several years ago studied five skeletons and estimated they were 1,200 years old.

Roopkund Lake is a shallow glacial lake 16,470 feet high in the Himalayas. The lake is in the province of Uttarakhand, in India. (Photo: Neha iitb/Wikimedia Commons)

No one knows what those ancient people were doing at that altitude. The riddle of what killed them has puzzled scientists for decades.

Now new DNA evidence has added another baffling layer to the mystery.

Mysterious History

“Through the use of biomolecular analyses, such as ancient DNA, stable isotope dietary reconstruction, and radiocarbon dating, we discovered that the history of Roopkund Lake is more complex than we ever anticipated,” says geneticist David Reich of Harvard Medical School.

Scientists had previously speculated that the lake was the site of a catastrophic event that left several hundred people dead.

Reich and his colleagues from Germany, India, and the US have published a study that upends that theory altogether.

Careful, painstaking examination using state-of-the-art technology has revealed that the remains belong to distinct groups.

The study, which spanned 10 years, examined DNA from 38 remains.

The analysis indicates the bones belonged to people who died over multiple periods. At least two of the deaths happened a thousand years apart.

The analysis indicates the bones belonged to people who died over multiple periods. At least two of the deaths happened a thousand years apart . (Photo: Ashokyadav739/Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers arrived at their conclusion using a series of bio-archeological analyses. They employed DNA analysis technology, stable isotope dietary reconstruction, radiocarbon dating, and osteological examinations.

Different Millennia, Different Peoples

Based on populations living today, the skeletons at Roopkund belong to three genetic groups. Twenty-three males and females had ancestries typical of contemporary South Asians.

This group came to the lake between the 7th and 10th centuries, and not all at once. Some skeletons were more ancient, suggesting that the bones belonged to people who died many lifetimes apart.

The discovery that the skeletons in this group were not from a single population puzzled the researchers. But it was the ancestries of the two other groups that surprised them the most.

Based on populations living today, the skeletons belong to individuals who fit into three distinct genetic groups. Twenty-three males and females had ancestries typical of contemporary South Asians. (Illustration by Geoff Hutchison/Flickr)

A thousand years after the first group arrived, two more genetic groups appeared.

The second subset is comprised of 14 people with ancestry related to people in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Crete and Greece. A third individual has ancestry that is more typical of that found in Southeast Asia.

“The presence of individuals with ancestries typically associated with the eastern Mediterranean suggests that Roopkund Lake was not just a site of local interest, but instead drew visitors from across the globe,” says researcher and evolutionary biologist Éadaoin Harney of Harvard University.

Soldiers, Gods, and Dancers

How these individuals from different times and parts of the world ended at Roopkund is still anyone’s guess.

A forest ranger had stumbled across the unsettling scene during World War II. Explanations for why hundreds of people died there have abounded.

These were invading Japanese soldiers, some said, killed while crossing into India. Others argued they were an Indian army returning from war. Local folklore insists they were a king and his party of dancers, slaughtered by a righteous deity.

There is no evidence of bacterial infections, so it is unlikely that an epidemic is to blame.

Some speculate the difficulties posed by the harsh, barren environment may be to blame for the deaths.

“It is still not clear what brought these individuals to Roopkund Lake or how they died,” says the study’s senior author Niraj Rai of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India.”We hope that this study represents the first of many analyses of this mysterious site.”

Maybe one day further advances in technology will unravel the secrets of Skeleton Lake.

Roopkund Lake

The Roopkund lake is a high altitude glacial lake which is located in a remote location in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

About the Roopkund lake

  • The lake lies in the lap of Trishul massif and given its remote location high up among the Himalayas the area around the lake is uninhabited.
  • The lake is located at an altitude of 16,470 feet and is surrounded by rock-strewn glaciers interspersed with snow-clad mountains. The average depth of the lake is barely 2 meters.
  • This makes the lake a popular trekking destination.

Why is the lake famous?

  • The Roopkund lake is famous for the discovery of the ancient skeletal remains of hundreds of humans which were found at the edge of the lake.
  • These remains are visible at its bottom of the lake when the snow melts.
  • While there are several superstitions related to the skeletons, modern research has shown that the skeletons belong to the 9th century and were of a group of travelers who were killed in a sudden, violent hailstorm.

Why is the lake in the news?

The lake is in the news because the scientists at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) have concluded that the skeletal remains found at the lake contain not only have Indian people but also a few people of Mediterranean origins. These results were obtained after a comprehensive genomic study.


The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands includes a section of southern Ontario bounded on the north by the Canadian Shield and by three of the Great Lakes—Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, and extends along the Saint Lawrence River to the Strait of Belle Isle [1] The St. Lawrence Lowlands ecoregion includes the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence River lowlands. The Frontenac Axis, a wedge of the Canadian Shield that protruded southwards into the northern United States, separates the St. Lawrence Lowlands in Quebec from southern Ontario. [2] In the north the Lowlands are bounded by the Laurentian Highlands and to the south by the Eastern Quebec Uplands. [3] The Geological Survey of Canada published an updated map in 2014 defining the boundaries of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands physiographic region. [4]

Sub-regions Edit

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence's lowlands include three sub-regions.

West Lowland Edit

The southwest region of the Lowlands which is in southern Ontario and northern New York and Vermont is divided by the Niagara Escarpment, which extends northeast from the Niagara River to the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island. [5] [1] [6] Most of the area which is east of the Niagara Escarpment—from Lake Ontario north to Georgian Bay—has low relief. The characteristic of this area, which was "entirely covered by glaciers during parts of the Pleistocene", are "lakes, poorly drained depressions, morainic hills, drumlins, eskers, outwash plains, and other glacial features." Soils in this area include "peat, muck, marl, clay, silt, sand, and gravel" [7] [Notes 1] [6] This subregion includes the Bruce Peninsula to the northwest and the Niagara Peninsula, which is the warmest and most intensely cultivated part of the ecozone. [8] : 68

Central Lowland Edit

The Central Lowland stretches between the Ottawa River and the Saint Lawrence River and extends to Québec city. [1] Major cities include Trois-Rivières. The Lowlands include a small area on the north shore near Québec City. The St. Lawrence Lowlands are underlain by marine and lacustrine clays and bedrock outcrops of Paleozoic limestone. [6] In the north it is bounded by the Laurentian Highlands. [3]

East Lowland Edit

The East Lowland includes Anticosti Island, Îles de Mingan, the Strait of Belle Isle and the Newfoundland Coastal Lowland. [1] To the south it is bordered by the Eastern Quebec Uplands. [3]

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands is listed as one of Canada's seven physiographic regions, which in turn have their own subregions and divisions—distinguished by topography and geology. [1] This map shows the location of these physiographic regions, including their subregions and divisions. The other physiographic regions are the Canadian Shield, the Hudson Bay Lowland, the Arctic Lands, the Interior Plains, the Cordillera, and the Appalachian Uplands. [1]

The region is "underlain by carbonate-rich" limestone Paleozoic sedimentary rock, [6] The glacial till deposits formed moraines, drumlins and glacial lake bottoms. [5] [9] [6]

The landforms of the Great Lake – St. Lawrence Lowlands, with its rolling hills and slopes, were carved by glacial streams. Two of the most prominent geological features include the Niagara Escarpment and the Frontenac Axis. [5] The Niagara Escarpment bifurcates the region from Niagara Falls to the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, then extends to Manitoulin Island. The Frontenac Axis, is an exposure of Canadian shield rocks that extends south to the St. Lawrence River near Kingston, creating the Thousand Islands.

Geology Edit

Peninsular Ontario lowlands are separated from the lowlands of the lower St. Lawrence at the Thousand Islands by the Frontenac Axis, where ancient granite of the Canadian Shield cross over and become the Adirondacks. The next notable pinching occurs at Quebec City, where again the Shield meets the shore. Anticosti Island and Newfoundland, both being islands, are separated by stretches of open saltwater.

Due to the presence of a deep fault line, this water eventually siphoned into the ocean. Thus, the primary defining historic feature of the lowlands is the presence of deep soils within the watershed and estuary of the St. Lawrence River. This feature occurs in more than one distinct Peninsular Ontario south and west of and the surrounding area, including the lower Ottawa Valley and St. Lawrence below the Thousand Islands, as far as Quebec City. A narrow ribbon of land along both shores of the lower St Lawrence Estuary, hemmed in on the north shore by the Canadian Shield and on the south which faces into the flow of the river, has accreted alluvial soils from the Great Lakes basin.

Glacial legacy Edit

Huge glacial seas such as Lake Agassiz, and the Champlain Sea (in the east), and vast, continent-wide 2 kilometres thick ice sheets contributed to the formation of the region. [10] The present form of Great Lakes–St. Lawrence basin developed about 7,000 years ago. [9] It began to emerge from glacial sheets about 14,000 years ago. [9]

The extent of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands physiographic region, as defined by Geological Survey of Canada, differs from the boundaries of ecozones defined by the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas (CCEA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), for example. [4] Statistics Canada described the St. Lawrence Lowlands as a densely populated 41,770 km2 ecoregion in Quebec and Ontario, with the St. Lawrence River flowing through the middle and included cities such as Ottawa–Gatineau, Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Québec in this ecoregion. [11] StatsCan said that, by 2006, 80 percent of the St. Lawrence Lowlands were covered by forests and cropland. The ecoregion produced 38.5 percent of Canada's total corn cropland, 22.6 percent of Canada's maple tree taps, 23.6 percent of the "Canadian pig population and 32.9 percent of Canadian dairy cows". [11]

The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Lowlands terrestrial region overlaps with Mixedwood Plains Ecozone, the smallest of Canada's fifteen terrestrial ecozones. [8] : 11 [Notes 2] [8] The Canadian Shield the largest of the ecozones overlaps with the boreal forest terrestrial ecozone in the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone. [8] : 39 The triangular area between three of the Great Lakes—Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario and the area along the St. Lawrence River are part of the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone. [8] : 65–8

Because of its "rich fertile soils", relatively mild climate, and extensive waterways, the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone, is one of the "most productive ecozones in Canada". [8] : 65–8 [12] [3] The ecozone extends along the St. Lawrence shoreline to Quebec City. It represents the "most populous and prosperous terrestrial ecozone". [8] : 65–8 [13] and is home to nearly half of Canada's population, including its two largest cities, Toronto, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. [14] [15]

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) describes the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River lowlands as the Eastern Great Lakes lowland forests ecoregion. [6] The lowland forest area stretches across the lowlands of the American states of New York and Vermont, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The New York and Vermont lowlands surround the Adirondack Mountainss. The Quebec lowlands are along the St. Lawrence River. The lowlands in southern Ontario stretch between Lake Ontario and the Georgian Bay/Lake Huron region. [6]

The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence hydrographic system—with a surface area of 1.6 million km2—is the third largest in North America and one of the largest in the world. [16] Three aquifers of the St. Maurice Delta Complex in the Central St. Lawrence Lowlands provide drinking water for Trois-Rivières and most of the other municipalities in the region. [17]

The premiers of the provinces of Quebec and Ontario and eight Great Lakes governors from Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin signed the Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement on December 13, 2005, which came into force in 2015. It is a good faith agreement detailing the management and use of the Great Lakes Basin's water supply. [18] It was signed on December 13, 2005. [19] It succeeds and builds on the Great Lakes Charter signed in 1985 and its Annex signed in 2001. [19]

Even though the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands is the smallest landform region in Canada, Southern Ontario and Quebec have a dense population and are home to about 50 percent of the population of Canada. [20] Historically, the lower Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Valley region attracted European immigrants and United Empire Loyalists with its "diversified resource base". Eventually, the area became the site of the "political consolidation of Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) forming the core of the Canadian Confederation in 1867". [2] : 13–20 Southern Ontario's Golden Horseshoe and the St. Lawrence lowlands formed Canada's industrial and manufacturing heartland. [21] [22] Stretching from Windsor, Ontario, along the shores of Lake Ontario to Quebec City, the formed a "densely populated urban ribbon at a length of some 1000 km and a width of 100-300 km". [2] [22] [21]

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region of Canada provides drinking water to over 8.5 million Canadians. [20] The region holds "largest freshwater system in the world" representing over 80 per cent of freshwater in North America. [20] In 2014, the economy of the Lowlands was valued at about $CDN 5.8 trillion. [20] About 50 percent of Canada's industrial capacity is in this region. [20] With the abundance of water and fertile soil, the Lowlands account for about 25 percent of "Canada's agricultural capacity." [20] With its dense population and an economy valued at about $CDN 5.8 trillion in 2014, industries in the Lowlands provide about 50 million jobs. [20] [23]

There is Utica shale, the stratigraphical unit of Upper Ordovician age occupies about 16,000 square kilometres in the Central Lowlands subregion of the St. Lawrence Lowlands (SLL) in the administrative regions of Montérégie, Centre-du-Québec and Chaudière-Appalaches. [24]

There are about 3,500 species of animals and plants in the Lowlands. [20] Characteristic wildlife includes the black bear, grey wolf, coyote, beaver, snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer, lynx, moose, and otter. [20] [3] Birds include waterfowl, warblers, blue birds, red-winged black birds, eagles, and hawks. [20] [3]

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have been living along both sides of the Saint Lawrence River. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands was the traditional lands of the Mohawk—the most easterly tribe of the Iroquoian-speaking Haudenosaunee Confederacy, [25] the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples, and the Cree—one of the largest groups of First Nations in North America. [12]

Watch the video: How do glaciers shape the landscape? Animation from Kerboodle. (August 2022).