No one knows exactly how they got thereâ€”the skeletal remains of 500-some-odd people spread around Lake Roopkund, in the Indian Himalayas. Since the bones were rediscovered by a forest ranger in 1942, a number of hauntingâ€”if unsubstantiatedâ€”theories have circled the skeletons like vultures: Had these been Japanese soldiers who succumbed to the elements? Victims of a landslide or forgotten epidemic or attack?
Now an international team of more than two dozen researchers has thrown more than one wrench into this enduring and alarming mystery. As it turns out, the remains do not all date to the same historical periodâ€”and they donâ€™t even share a common geographic origin. This means that, many centuries apart, different groups of different peoples from different parts of the world somehow all met their demise at this same spot, which has since earned the popular moniker Skeleton Lake. The researchers published their puzzling findings yesterday, in the journal Nature Communications.
Ã‰adaoin Harney and Nick Patterson, biologists at Harvard University and two of the studyâ€™s 28 authors, say they were very surprised by what they found in their DNA analyses. With their colleagues they looked at 76 distinct skeletal elements, 38 of which provided full genomic information, and all of which combined to present an impressive diversity: Of the 38 individuals, the remains of 23 date approximately to the year 800, while the remains of the other 15 date approximately to 1800. Though the 23 older individuals all appear to have come from South Asia, Harney and Patterson say there is evidence indicating that they came from different places within the subcontinent, and the evidence indicates that their remains were â€œdeposited in more than one event.â€ All but one of the other 15 individuals, meanwhile, came from as far away as the eastern Mediterraneanâ€”perhaps, says Patterson, from somewhere in the Greek-speaking world. The remaining individual had Southeast Asian ancestry, and so constitutes a third distinct group.
Ayushi Nayak, another author of the study and a PhD candidate in archaeology at Germanyâ€™s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, emphasizes that those three groups were represented in the remains of just 38 individuals. How many more historical periods and geographical regions, she wonders, might lie within the siteâ€™s hundreds of bones? Looking at all of them was not feasible for just one study, but the remaining samples have been well preserved by the chilly Himalayan air, so more research is possible.
23 Aug 2019