Roopkund Lake skeletons: Mystery deepens, as scientists say bones belong to people of Mediterranean origin as well
The mysterious skeletons of Roopkund Lake in Uttarakhand contain bones from eastern Mediterranean people who travelled to the Himalayan site sometime in the 17th century and inhabited the surroundings of the glacial lake, reveals a study conducted by an international team of scientists.
Scientists of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BSIP) in Lucknow have been working on the enigma of this site, considered to be among the world’s top 10 mysterious places, for the past five years. The new findings have surprised the researchers who, so far, were relying on the old theory.
According to the old theory, proposed by scientists of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, the skeletons belonged to people of Indian origin who died in a natural calamity sometime in the 8th century. There have been other suggestions too -- one being that the skeletons belonged to Japanese soldiers who died here while crossing the route during World War II.
“Our findings, based on DNA analysis of samples collected from hundreds of skeletons at the lake, not only confirm the presence of Indian tribe who died of a catastrophe in the 8th century but also show the presence of a densely populated colony of Mediterranean population up there in the 17th century. The latter was not known to the world, so far,” said Niraj Rai, senior scientist and group head, ancient DNA lab of the BSIP, who is spearheading the Roopkund project along with a team of scientists.
He said that the team had further concluded that the lake and its surroundings were subjected to catastrophic events twice, which must have led to “massive causalities”. “This must have resulted in the accumulation of skeletons in bulk at the Roopkund lake,” said Rai.
Project Roopkund: The beginning
Project Roopkund was first rolled out in 2006 by Lalji Singh, the then director of CCMB, Hyderabad. “A team was sent to the lake to collect samples from the skeletal remains. Since the climatic conditions were too harsh, the team managed to collect just about 20 samples. “The CCMB then collaborated with the Anthropological Survey of India, which had collected the samples way back in 1952, and began the project,” Rai told HT.
However, due to lack of technological advancement and expertise, nothing much could be concluded other than the fact that the bones belonged to people of Indian origin who lived in the 8th century and died due to a catastrophic event. “But as we know now, that was just half the truth,” said Rai who was then a part of the CCMB as a PhD student.
Rai restarted the project in 2014 when he was working as a post doctoral research fellow with the CCMB.
“The year 2014 witnessed an upsurge in technological advancements, especially in the field of retraction of ancient DNA obtained from skeletons. So, I thought of giving another try to this project that had been lying dormant,” he said.
Initially, he began working on the project all by himself. “But extracting DNA from the ancient bones was not easy. So, I formed a team to take the research forward,” he said.
In 2017, Rai was appointed as a senior scientist and group head at the ancient DNA lab of the BSIP. There, he began to head the project.
Along with him there was a team of international scientists, including Kumarasamy Thangaraj, CSIR Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad; Éadaoin Harney, department of organismic and evolutionary biology, Harvard University, USA; Ayushi Nayak, department of archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany; Douglas Kennett, department of anthropology, University of California, USA; David Reich, department of genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA, and others. It was then that the project really took off.
The Latest Findings
Kumarasamy Thangaraj said that after carrying out extensive DNA analysis and putting in years of research, the team concluded that the human skeletons found at the lake belonged to two genetic groups.
“The group of Indian tribe belonged to the 8th century (as previously concluded), while the second group belonged to people of Mediterranean race of the 17th century,” he said.
Besides, it was also concluded that the area was subjected to catastrophic events twice. “However, it is still not clear what brought these people to Roopkund Lake or how they died,” he said.
Thangaraj said that it was also surprising that no locals were aware of the existence of a group of Mediterranean people there in the past.
“We tried to interact with the residents of a nearby village called Wan, which is located about 50km from Roopkund. Nobody there was aware about such a colony -- it was neither in their folklore nor in their folk songs or history. It is actually shocking that such a big colony got vanished from history,” said Thangaraj.
Speaking on the latest findings, Vandana Prasad, director BSIP, said, “It is indeed a major discovery. This type of research was never done before in India. There have been researches related to ancient tools, earthen ware, pottery and artefacts. This sort of analysis of genetic data obtained from ancient skeletons has taken our research work to another level. It is not the end of the research, rather, it’s the beginning of a new chapter on the mysterious Roopkund Lake.”
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