Photo Credit: Schwiki

How Hundreds of Bodies Ended up in Skeleton Lake

In 1942, during the height of World War II, a forest ranger in Roopkund, India made a grisly discovery – hundreds of skeletons along a frozen glacial lake in the Himalayas. Some of the bones still had hair and flesh attached to them. Fearful that the remains might be Japanese soldiers who died of exposure while sneaking through the mountains, the British government launched an investigation. When the ice melted the next summer, investigators found many more skeletons in the shallow waters of what is now called Roopkund Lake, but unofficially is known as Skeleton Lake.

The investigators quickly determined that the bones were much too old to have anything to do with the war. The remains had been well preserved by the cold, dry air, but technology at the time could not adequately determine the age of the bones.

Theories began to emerge as to why so many bodies were in the lake: perhaps it was ritual suicide, maybe the lake had been used as a dumping ground for bodies after an epidemic, perhaps two warring factions had killed each other, or maybe it was a landslide. Finally, a 2004 scientific expedition provided a plausible explanation for what happened.

The 300-700 skeletons were dated to around 850 CE and showed the full spread of human ages. DNA showed that the bodies were from two distinct groups of people: most were from a large family or tribe of closely related humans, many of whom shared a rare minor genetic abnormality, and the second were a people of shorter stature who were likely locals. They were likely pilgrims with local guides and porters. Aside from their fatal injuries, they appear to have been generally healthy. They all died roughly at the same time.

The cause of death was determined to be a combination of geography and weather. Roopkund Lake is at an altitude of about 5,050 meters (16,500 feet). It is located in a small valley surrounded by steep jagged peaks, in an area prone to avalanches and storms that can produce large hailstones. Many of the skulls displayed evidence of trauma that occurred while the person was still alive, and is similar to injuries sustained from small rocks.

The research team suggested that the people were in the valley when a hailstorm hit. They had no shelter, and there is no cover in the valley. They fled up the steep sides of the valley, but were killed as the hail hit them and fractured their skulls. Eventually landslides pushed their bodies down into the valley and into the lake. The bones are so strewn about that the 2004 expedition fretted that they couldn’t take two steps without stepping on bones or flesh.

Support for this theory comes from local legend. The people who live near the lake have passed down an oral tale through songs. It tells of a goddess becoming angry with her devotes and raining down hail as hard as iron in her anger, killing them.

The Skeleton Lake of Roopkund, India | Atlas Obscura

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Other Sources:

National Geographic documentary “Riddles of the Dead: Skeleton Lake