There are a grand total of three Skeleton Lakes to be found on this lonely blue planet. One is in Alberta, Canada, and bears the legend of a Cree chief buried on its shores. The second boasts a Bonus Skeleton. It’s in Mukasa, Ontario, and its name comes from a Native American legend of a mother and son starving to death on its shores.
The third, however, takes the cake for its Skeleton Count. The Skeleton Lake of Uttarakhand, India contains the remains of over 300 people. There’s no bones about it, either—you can see them when the snow melts. A better photo spot than the Taj Mahal, no?
Roopkund, which the lake is also known as, is geologically unremarkable. It’s a glacial pond, carved out by a retreating glacier millions of years ago. In the winter, it’s a shallow little frozen puddle in the bottom of a bowl-like valley surrounded by Trishul Massif, which are part of the Himalayas in northern India.
In the summer, the snow melts, filling the lake and revealing its gristly secret: hundreds of bones nestled at the bottom, a grim reminder of some unknown tragedy from long ago.
The lake was first officially “discovered” in 1942 by a hapless British officer who, upon seeing the bones littering the lake’s shores, thought it was the remains of an invading force. Among the remains were frayed sandals, old bamboo spears and pieces of jewelry, all preserved by the cold mountain air.
Closer inspection revealed that the bones, though they had skin, rags and hair attached to them, were much older than any feasible invading source. About 1092 years older, in fact.
A 2004 research team analyzed the DNA from the skeletons, and revealed that the owners of the bones most likely lived in A.D. 850. There were two groups among the skeletons; one was made up of a taller crowd, with morphologies similar to modern-day inhabitants of Iran, and all closely related. The other, smaller group were a little shorter and more genetically diverse.
How they got there was a mystery. The valley was too isolated for a village. The presence of women in the group discounted the idea of a great battle, and the bones were too haphazard for the valley to be a proper burial site. In fact, considering that it takes about three to four days to trek to the lake (with modern equipment, mind you) why would a group travel to such a remote spot in the first place?
The answer can actually be found in myth. Anthropologists will often look to local legends or folklore to learn about daily life, phenomena or bits of knowledge and history, which, in ancient times, would often be attributed to supernatural causes.
In this case, Roopkund was well-known among the locals before it was “discovered” by the soldier. Legend had it that a rich king, Raja Jasdhaval, went on a pilgrimage to a far-off shrine with his pregnant wife, a group of guides and a troupe of dancers. When the group become too rambunctious and festive, however, the local mountain goddess became angered (perhaps they partied too late at night?) and summoned a storm of hail, killing them all.
It’s just a legend, right? Well, here’s the kicker: every skeleton in the bunch has signs of severe trauma to the head, with the impact coming from smooth, round objects from above.
Whether or not the group’s death was because of an angry deity or poor timing is still up for debate. However, it can be concluded that the poor lost souls of Skeleton Lake were killed by hail, which is a pretty gruesome way to go. If you do decide to visit the site, be sure to take a guide, take a helmet and maybe avoid the bhangra dance practice while you’re up there.
Stay safe—and weird!
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.