Research Press Release

Archaeology: Insights into the mystery of Skeleton Lake

Nature Communications

August 21, 2019

An analysis of DNA extracted from 38 skeletons dating from 800-1800 CE from Roopkund Lake (colloquially known as Skeleton Lake), in India, identifies three groups of individuals with different ancestries, reports a study in Nature Communications. The skeletons were deposited during multiple events, separated in time by approximately 1,000 years and include 14 individuals with ancestry typical of the eastern Mediterranean, dated to around 1800 CE.

Skeletal remains of several hundred individuals are scattered around the shores of Roopkund Lake, a small body of water situated at over 5,000 meters above sea level in the Himalayan Mountains. Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the origins of these skeletons; however, given the nature of the site it has been difficult to determine where they came from.

David Reich, Niraj Rai and colleagues analysed DNA and performed radiocarbon dating for 38 individuals from the lake. The authors identified three genetically distinct groups, which had arrived at separate times. This included 23 individuals with South Asian ancestry dated to around 800 CE, with evidence that the skeletons from this group were deposited in more than one event. They also found 14 individuals of eastern Mediterranean ancestry and an individual with East Asian ancestry, both dated to approximately 1800 CE. The findings refute previous suggestions that all the skeletons were deposited in a single catastrophic event. Further archival research is needed to resolve the puzzling presence of the Mediterranean migrants.


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