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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Skeletons in Uttarakhand’s Roopkund lake point to eastern Mediterranean link

Situated at over 5,000 metres above the sea levels, the Roopkund Lake, or the Mystery Lake as some would call it, has been the subject of scientific studies that initially concluded the skeletons belonged to people of Indian origin who died sometime in the eighth century.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2019 14:30 IST
Oliver Fredrick
Oliver Fredrick
Hindustan Times, Lucknow
A view of the glacial Roopkund Lake in Uttarakhand.
A view of the glacial Roopkund Lake in Uttarakhand.(Photo courtesy: Atish Waghwase)
         

Tucked away in the Himalayas, a glacial lake in Uttarakhand has been shrouded in mystery ever since hundreds of human skeletons were found scattered in and around the site in the early 1940s by a forest guard.

Situated at over 5,000 metres above the sea levels, the Roopkund Lake, or the Mystery Lake as some would call it, has been the subject of scientific studies that initially concluded the skeletons belonged to people of Indian origin who died sometime in the eighth century.

But a new study by an international team of scientists has only deepened the mystery surrounding the icy lake. For the research concludes that the skeletons indicated a group of eastern Mediterranean people travelled to the site around the 17th century and could have settled in the surroundings.

There are other theories though. One of them says the skeletons belonged to Japanese soldiers who died there during the World War II. Nonetheless, one thing is for sure: the area has a more complex history than previously thought.

Scientists of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BSIP) in Lucknow have been researching the site for the past five years.

“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, a senior scientist and group head of the ancient DNA lab of BSIP.

He is heading of the Roopkund project involving a team of international scientists including those from the USA and Germany, among others.

He said the team also 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: A history

In 2006 by Lalji Singh, the then director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, began studying Roopkund. Rai was then a doctoral student at CCMB.

“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.

“CCMB then collaborated with the Anthropological Survey of India, which had collected the samples way back in 1952, and began the project,” Rai said.

At that time, nothing much could be concluded other than the fact that the bones belonged to people of Indian origin who lived in the eighth century and died due to a catastrophic event.

Project restarts

Rai restarted the project in 2014 when he was working as a post-doctoral research fellow with 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.

In 2017, Rai was appointed a senior scientist and group head at the ancient DNA lab of BSIP. His interest in Roopkund did not wane. He and the international team of scientists continued with the study.

The latest findings

Kumarasamy Thangaraj of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, said after carrying out extensive DNA analysis for years, the team concluded that the human skeletons found at the lake belonged to two distinct genetic groups.

“The group of Indian tribe belonged to the eight century [as previously concluded], while the second group belonged to people of Mediterranean region [such as Greece] of the 17th century,” Thangaraj, who is associated with the study, 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.

First Published: Aug 21, 2019 23:40 IST