Riddle as Himalayan skeleton lake is found to contain remains of hundreds of people who died thousands of years apart, including bodies from as far away as Greece
DNA from remains found high in the Himalayas suggest that Greeks were among hundreds of people who died at a mysterious location known as Skeleton Lake.
Roopkund Lake on the Indian side of the Himalayas was once thought to be the site of an ancient catastrophe that left several hundred people dead.
But the first ancient whole genome DNA data from India shows that several different groups of people died at the lake in several incidents up to 1,000 years apart.
The mystery first emerged during the Second World War when a British guard discovered the frozen lake full of skeletons some 16,000 feet (5,000 metres) above sea level.
WHAT HAPPENED AT SKELETON LAKE?
Theories ranging from a landslide to a mass suicide were put forward to explain the deaths, but it is only recently that researchers believe they know what caused the cracks in their skulls.
A 2004 expedition to the site concluded the group was killed by cricket ball-sized hailstones during a sudden storm.
This, they decided, was the only way to explain why the skulls and shoulder bones of the dead had all been hit by rounded objects directly from above.
As there was nowhere to shelter in the valley, the group was at the mercy of the storm.
Their bodies lay in the lake, which regularly freezes, for the next 1,200 years until their wartime discovery.
Study senior author Doctor Niraj Rai, of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in India, said: ‘Roopkund Lake has long been subject to speculation about who these individuals were, what brought them to Roopkund Lake, and how they died.’
Researchers say that analysis of DNA obtained from the skeletons reveals that they derive from at least three ‘distinct’ genetic groups.
The first group was made up of 23 people 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.
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.
A third individual has ancestry that is more typical of that found in South East Asia.
Stable isotope dietary reconstruction of the skeletons also supports the presence of multiple distinct groups.
Study first-author Éadaoin Harney, from Harvard University, said: ‘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.’
Radiocarbon dating indicates that the skeletons were not deposited at the same time, as previously assumed.
Instead, the study showed that the two major genetic groups were actually deposited around 1,000 years apart.