A remote Himalayan lake holds up to 800 skeletons from people who died 1,000 years apart. The mystery remains unsolved.
- A remote lake nicknamed "Skeleton Lake" sits more than 16,500 feet up in the Indian Himalayas.
- The lake, which is actually called Roopkund, is the final resting place of up to 800 human skeletons and frozen bodies.
- One researcher who traveled there said visitors "can't take a single step without stepping on bones."
- DNA analysis has shown that some of the remains were from groups of people who died about 1,000 years apart.
- Scientists still don't know what killed the people buried at the lake or how they ended up there.
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Nestled high in the Indian Himalayas, a tiny body of water has earned a macabre nickname: "Skeleton Lake."Officially named Roopkund, the lake's edges are rimmed with human bones and frozen bodies - some with frozen hair and flesh still attached. Bold hikers have stacked some of the remains into morbid shrines.
"It's a small, enclosed space, and there are bones everywhere," William Sax, an anthropologist who visited Roopkund in 1978 and consulted on a 2004 National Geographic documentary about the lake, told Business Insider. "It feels scary and disturbing."Anthropologists like Sax are interested in the area because nobody knows what killed the people buried there. A forest ranger named Hari Kishan Madhwal came upon the lake in 1942, yet more than 75 years later, researchers are no closer to pinpointing how or why these people perished. The mystery of the lake deepened this summer, when a DNA study of 38 skeletons revealed that people from three genetically distinct groups had died at Roopkund in at least two waves, about 1,000 years apart.
For the recent analysis, Harney and her team drilled into the femurs and long arm bones of dozens of skeletons from the lake to extract DNA.
That discovery changed scientists' understanding of Skeleton Lake, since previous research had suggested that most of the bones at the site dated back to the year 800 or so.
Conducting this kind of research at the lake isn't easy. Roopkund, which means "lake of form" in Hindi, is more than 16,500 feet above sea-level.
The surrounding environs are breathtakingly beautiful, Sax said. The lake is located in India's Nanda Devi National Park.
Still, he added, "there's no reason for anybody to be up there." That's what makes the presence of these skeletons so mysterious.
For visitors to the lake, Sax said, the site's macabre history is plainly visible: "You can't take a single step without steeping on bones."
Some travelers have collected the bones and stacked them in piles, out of fascination or perhaps respect. But such human interference disturbs the site, Harney said.
Myriad explanations have been put forward as to how these individuals perished, from a freak hailstorm to a mass ritual suicide.
Harney's team thinks it's possible that some people who perished during the first wave of Skeleton Lake deaths experienced "a mass death during a pilgrimage event."
The lake is near a present-day pilgrimage route through the region, the study authors wrote.
A local folk song even describes a mass pilgrimage to the shrine of a mountain goddess, called Nanda Devi, near the lake.
Those balls of iron could have been hail that rained down during a severe storm, according to the study authors.
Harney said researchers observed compression fractures on several of the skeletons that might be consistent with injuries from a hailstorm or rockslide.
Ultimately, though, Harney is hesitant to speculate about any causes of death, since it's not possible to determine that information through the genetic analysis her team completed.
Harney and her colleagues' analysis did, however, put to rest a few theories about what could have killed the people at the lake.
Kathleen Morrison, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the recent study, offered one other possible explanation: "When you see a lot of human skeletons, usually it's a graveyard," she told The Atlantic.
But Harney thinks the site is too remote to be a graveyard. "I don't know of any evidence that would support this," she said.
Harney said further study of the bones and bodies is needed to figure out how these individuals died.
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