January 15, 2021
High in the Indian Himalaya, in a gorgeous lonely glacier-scooped cirque, sits a tarn called Roopkund. Hindi for “beautifully shaped lake,” it is about 130 feet across and 10 feet deep. It’s frozen most of the year, but when it thaws you can see plentiful human skulls and bones lying on the bottom.
I haven’t made it there, but I’d love to try someday!
Hundreds more bones and skulls dot the shoreline, which trekkers have arranged into cairns and patterns. In 1956, an expedition brought some of these remains to Calcutta for study. Carbon dating, then in its infancy, indicated they were between 500 and 800 years old.
Roopkund sits at over 16,000 feet, and is an arduous multi-day trek from Wan, the nearest village. It probably wasn’t a popular spot for picnickers of yore. However, the tarn lies beneath a soaring ridge which is along a longtime pilgrimage route honoring the goddess Nanda Devi.
In 2005, a multidisciplinary team collected additional bones for study. The Roopkund remains had long been picked over and mixed around by trekkers, but a recent landslide had exposed a fresh cache. Researchers estimated that between 300 and 700 peoples’ remains were at the lake, and determined that most had been healthy, unrelated women and men between the ages of 18 and 35. Among the recently-exposed bones were bits of leather slippers, bamboo parasols, and bangles of shell and glass.
The DNA proved, unsurprisingly, to be South Asian in origin. Carbon dating was tightly clustered in the 800s, indicating perhaps a single event. Two distinct groups of people emerged from the bone analysis: tall individuals with long heads, and shorter ones with round heads bearing the marks of forehead straps–i.e. Brahmans from the plains, and their mountain porters.
A fairly clear picture emerged: of ninth century pilgrims and porters, perhaps not well fitted with mountaineering gear, getting caught in a blizzard or hailstorm and dying of exposure. Over the centuries, landslides and avalanches rolled their bodies down to the lake.
The mystery appeared solved; the puzzle pieces fallen into place.
Or so we thought.
More recent studies have yielded some extremely puzzling information. As Douglas Preston explains in the Dec. 14 New Yorker, a significant portion of the Roopkund bones, up to a third of them, do not exhibit the DNA of South Asians. Rather they are from the eastern Mediterranean. And they died much more recently.
The closest match is Crete. Backing this up is bone collagen data, which indicate these folks ate a typical Mediterranean diet in the ten years preceding their death (the South Indian bone collagen, on the other hand, showed a diet typical of India). Carbon dating is now more precise; the South Asians died in 3-4 incidents between 700 and 950 AD. The Mediterranean group, on the other hand, perished in a single event sometime between 1650 and 1950. The highest probability is that it happened in the 1700s.
When these results came out, the researchers sort of hoped someone would come forward with information about a lost group of Greeks in the Himalayas sometime around 1700 or 1800 (and explain why they were making a Hindu pilgrimage). No one has.
Anthropologist William Sax, a longtime Roopkund afficionado, has spent years in the villages below the lake. He has heard not a whisper of any story or legend about a party of foreigners coming in the 1700s or 1800s, let alone dying at Roopkund.
Were the bones mixed up with others in their Kolkata storage locker? Not likely. If that had happened, the DNA would be all over the map. Else we’d have to explain why a bunch of Greek bones remarkably consistent in age, type, and diet ended up in a vault in India.
The mystery persists.
And its answers may lie on the muddy floor of Roopkund.
Beneath the clear water, which is frozen most of the year, are human remains untouched by meddlers. They are better preserved than their shore counterparts, and contain soft tissues.
And perhaps artifacts.