Science

Scientists crack Roopkund skeleton mystery

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on August 21, 2019 Published on August 21, 2019

Scientists suspect that skeletal remains of 400-600 individuals are scattered around the shores of Roopkund lake   -  Pramod Joglekar

The ancient remains belong to people with three distinct genetic identities

Finally, scientists have cracked the mystery around skeletons found in Roopkund Lake, a frozen water-body in the Himalayas. A team of Indian and international scientists reported that the remains belong not just to Indians, but also to individuals hailing from faraway regions such as present-day Greece and South East Asia.

The study, published in Nature Communications journal, also established that these people, numbering several hundreds, did not die in a single catastrophic event as previously thought, but in multiple incidents occurring approximately 1,000 years apart.

The scientists, led by David Reich of the Harvard Medical School in the US and Niraj Rai of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleosciences in Lucknow, used advanced genetic analysis and carbon dating techniques to unravel the puzzle. As many as 28 scientists from Indian, European and American institutes participated in the study.

The scientists said they suspect that the skeletal remains of 400-600 individuals are scattered around the shores of Roopkund Lake, a 40-metre diameter water -body fed mainly by glacier meltwater. Though there were many hypotheses to explain the origins of these skeletons, they couldn’t be proven because of the difficulty of the terrain — at an altitude of 5,400 metres in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. “One needs to trek for four days to reach the place,” said Rai.

“Roopkund Lake has long been subject to speculation about who these individuals were, what brought them to Roopkund Lake, and how they died,” said Rai, who has been studying these skeletal remains since his days as a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad many years ago.

“We first became aware of the presence of multiple distinct groups at Roopkund after sequencing the mitochondrial DNA of 72 skeletons. While many of the individuals possessed mitochondrial haplogroups typical of present-day Indian populations, we also identified a large number of individuals with haplogroups that would be more typical of populations from West Eurasia,” said K Thangaraj, a senior scientist at CCMB and a co-author of the paper. The scientists who studied DNA samples from 38 skeletons preserved in an Anthropological Survey of India museum in Dehradun showed that they derive from at least three distinct genetic groups. While 23 of them belonged to individuals of South Asian ancestry dated to around 800 AD, 14 were from the eastern Mediterranean region and one was of an individual of South-East Asian origin. The samples belonging to the latter two groups dated to 1800.

First-gen Greeks

“These were first generation Greeks. They were all tall, able-bodied males and females, but not soldiers,” Rai told BusinessLine from Lucknow over telephone. “It is still not clear what brought these individuals to Roopkund Lake or how they died,” said Rai. “We hope that this study represents the first of many analyses of this mysterious site.”

Using very sophisticated tools, the scientists also managed to carry out dietary analysis of the individuals. “Individuals belonging to the Indian-related group had highly variable diets. These findings are consistent with the genetic evidence that they belonged to a variety of socio-economic groups in South Asia,” said another senior author of the study, Ayushi Nayak of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Published on August 21, 2019
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