Mystery Solved – The Skeleton Lake of India

In 1942 a British patrol in Roopkund, India made a shocking discovery. Approximately 17,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake full of human skeletons. That summer, the ice melted to reveal even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lake’s edges. Had something horrible had happened here?

Scientists now believe they have finally solved the mystery of how and why the skeletons of over 200 people were found in a frozen lake in northern India.

© himilayanadventurer.blogspot

© Rajib Acharya

Lake Roopkund is located in northern India along the border of Nepal at 4,800 meters (~16,000 ft) above sea level with edges covered in snow for most of the year. The water is rather shallow, only reaching a maximum depth of 2 meters, and frozen most of the year. The frozen climate at this altitude has aided significantly in the preservation of hair, soft tissue, and leather clothing, prompting the everyone to believe these were recent deaths. These skeletons were initially thought to be the bodies of Japanese soldiers who had died of exposure while travelling through India as part of a World War II invasion. More recent analyses conclude the remains were much older than anyone expected, dating them to approximately 850AD.

The significant amounts of soft tissue present first confused everyone. How could these skeletons be old if there was still flesh on the bones?

Who were these people? DNA evidence of the remains indicates there were two distinct groups – (1) a closely related or family group, and (2) a shorter group of local people, likely hired as porters and guides. Many artifacts (spears, leather shoes, rings, etc.) were found among remains, leading experts to conclude the family group was most likely made up of pilgrims heading through the valley with the help of the locals as guides.

What happened to them? It was initially proposed these people died as a result of exposure, perhaps trapped in an avalanche. But closer inspection of the bones reveals evidence of perimortem trauma on many of the skeletons. This is trauma that occurred at the time of death. Scientists apparently discovered a surprising pattern, in which the skulls and mostly bones of the upper body were inflicted with a similar type of trauma.

Scattered, commingled remains along the thawed rocks and lake edge.

Scattered, commingled remains along the thawed rocks and lake edge.

Were they murdered? According to experts, the skeletons only showed signs of one type of perimortem wound. Furthermore, they did not have typical wounds indicative of the time period’s weaponry. Instead, experts determined the injuries were indicative of an impact from a large, rounded object.

Remains showcased on a boulder along with artifacts–personal belongings such as leather shoes.

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A 2004 expedition to the lake revealed a new and unexpected scenario that could have led to the death of over 200 people. The prevalence of head and shoulder injuries led experts to wonder if their deaths were the result of something falling from above. Taking skeletal evidence and the cold environment into consideration, it is now proposed injuries were due to a sudden and severe hailstorm in which people were pelted with large hailstones (estimated 23 cm/9” diameter). Trapped in a valley with no shelter, there would have been no easy escape, thus resulting in this mysterious mass of skeletons. Their bodies remained hidden in the glacial valley, freezing and thawing for the next 1,200 years until their gruesome discovery.

A typical view of Lake Roopkund, with remains trapped under ice and snow.

Is this event really possible? It’s difficult to assess this traumatic scenario without seeing images of the vaguely described skeletal trauma. But a quick web search of hailstones reveals they can indeed reach sizes of 9 inches that experts proposed. The largest hailstone collected in the US measured 8 inches across and weighed in at almost 2 pounds. Despite some extreme sizes of hailstones, only 3 individuals have died in the US (in 3 separate storms).

Here is the largest official hailstone ever collected in the US. This 8-inch specimen fell in Vivian, South Dakota on July 23, 2010.

Historical records indicate that the deadliest hailstorm occurred on April 30, 1888 in the northern districts of India, killing 230 people. The hailstones were reportedly as big as oranges, accumulating up to 2 feet high. Although rare, it appears these freak hailstorms with monstrous hailstones have a history of forming in the Deccan Plateau of India and in Bangladesh. Recently around January 31, 2013, a severe 20-minute hailstorm suddenly struck several villages in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India, killing 9 people. The short duration of storms may account for a minimal amount of trauma to the lower body.

People clean the streets after a freak hailstorm in Andhra Pradesh, India.

People clean the streets after a freak hailstorm in Andhra Pradesh, India.

The deaths at Rookpund Lake could very likely be the result of a freak hailstorm. Although they are quite rare, history indicates these hailstorms do have a higher occurrence in that particular area and have been known to produce small boulder-sized hailstones. Taking all of the evidence into consideration, it seems probable that a very short but intense hailstorm would have led to the death of ~200 individuals in 850AD, thus solving this curious mystery.

*UPDATE: For further information, please refer to National Geographic’s “Riddles Of The Dead: Skeleton Lake”, a documentary which details the 2004 expedition they funded.

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56 responses to “Mystery Solved – The Skeleton Lake of India

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed my writing. You can even visit the site from the end of May to October.

  1. I’m going to disagree with the well reasoned and evidenced scientific conclusion. It’s quite clear to me that this was a Yeti attack. Around 850 AD, the Yeti would have been much more numerous, having not yet been taken into space by the Reptoid aliens as we all know. These unfortunate souls wandered into the Yeti territory and had rocks hurled at them from above. Being pilgrims, they were ill-equipped for battle. Unlike Erik the Red and his Viking brethren who all but eliminated the Yeti from North America during roughly the same time period, leaving only a small yeti population in the northwest, colloquially known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Had the Vikings gone farther west than Minnesota, there would be no Sasquatch at all I believe

    • Hi, thanks a lot. I just started writing posts two weeks ago, but I noticed you started following my blog, so that will be the best way to get notifications of future posts.

  2. I am more apt to believe the Yeti theory. I don’t think that a sudden hail storm would kill so many people. At least one or two would be able to survive it out of 200. but if they were bombarded by the Yeti until they were all dead then that I would believe.
    Very interesting.

    • I’m curious as to why you would assume that there were no survivors. I’m sure there are plenty of events resulting in catastrophic loss of life that we in modern time have never heard of. And it’s still possible that the survivor(s) of the hail didn’t survive the trip back out of yeti country. 😉

      • Yes, it’s definite that there could have been survivors, but since we don’t have any written or oral records from the event, we end up having to focus more on what happened to the deceased. Surely if the hail and Yetis weren’t enough, starvation could have been another factor.

      • There is actually a reference in oral tradition in the nearby villages of a group of pilgrims who supposedly offended the goddess and were brought down by hail. It said so in the NatGeo documentary.

    • A hailstorm of ANY duration with hail stones nine inches in diameter would, without question, kill anything and everything in its wake.

  3. This place is still a pilgrimage destination now, but women are not allowed. There is a legend which explains why – that once, many years ago, a King came here with his pregnant wife, and their entourage. The wife gave birth in a cave, and everyone had to stay put until she was strong enough to travel. Ill equipped for a long stay, and lacking shelter, many of he party starved or died of exposure. Tests on some of the bones have shown that the deceased underwent a period of starvation before death. Since that time, it is not permitted for women to come on pilgrimage to the holy lake, although some western women do defy this tradition.

  4. I wonder whether there is evidence of injury to hands as well as upper body. I imagine that people would be inclined to try to protect their heads.

    • Great point. I’m sure there is trauma to the hands. Unfortunately, a lot of environmental (postmortem) damage has occurred to the remains over the years, which can hinder trauma that happened around death. The remains have been trapped under and around large sections of broken rock throughout this valley, which continually freezes and melts, allowing bones to move with gravity.

      For a mutlitude of reasons, no large-scale systematic excavations of Roopkund have ever been performed. Nat Geo paid for an excavation in the 2000’s for a TV episode, which seemed a little haphazard. I’ve only seen one image that suggests hailstorm damage to a skull. It seems like a lot of the focus has been placed on eliminating other events and determining who these people were. It seems like trauma is secondary, and it would be amazing to have an opportunity to see more examples of the proposed hail damage.

      • According to Prof. Walimbe, it was not just one skull, but many, which should perimorterm damage from being struck by a circular/concoidal object. Unfortunately, they were not allowed to publish said material due to NatGeo’s Interllectual Property Rights over the project.

      • You’re absolutely right, I just meant I personally only viewed the one impacted skull which was showcased in the Nat Geo video. It’s sad to see such a wealth of information not being published in scientific articles.

  5. I am interested in the scientists you are quoting. And if the DNA analysis shows exactly which geographical region the bones belong to. Also, I notice form the pictures that many of the skeletons have been strewn across as if on display. I am worried that the remains are being treated as showpieces or exhibits.

    • The scientists are a team of different professionals (mostly located in India) funded by National Geographic. There isn’t much hard information available as Nat Geo apparently holds exclusive rights over the data. DNA was sequenced at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, India. It’s sad to see a lot of hard work go into a large investigation and no published scientific articles come out of it.

      This spot is a trekking destination and has yearly visitors who obviously move bones around, not realizing that this damages them in the process and we lose all associated context of the remains. I’ve read that there is interest in furthering developing eco-tourism and helping protect the site better. People have been known to walk off with bones in their bags, which really saddens me.

  6. Hi..I’m going on a trekking trip to this lake this May. This article has spooked me and now i’m more anxiuos and excited to go there..thnx for this good read. 🙂

    • Thanks. I hope you enjoy the trek! Just please remember to respectful to the skeletal remains. These are people and don’t deserve to be moved around or stolen. A full study of the site has never been undergone (or else the skeletons wouldn’t be there) so it’s better to leave things in place. I hope you have a safe journey!

  7. Pingback: Colorful stories of Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra - Indiahikes.in·

    • I have not heard any information as to the height of any of the skeletons. I’m also interested to know how many individuals were studied in order to estimate stature along with other forensic details. Please send me a link about tall skeletons, if you have one.

  8. Pingback: 8 Unheard Stories Of Roopkund - www.kanigas.com·

    • Great question! There do appear to be 2 lakes in India that are very slightly higher in elevation. Gurudongmar Lake is found at an altitude of 17,800 ft (5,430 m) and Tso Lhamo Lake (also known as Cholamu) is 17,490 ft (5,330 m) above sea level. They are both located in northern Sikkim, less than 8 km apart.

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