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Monster hailstorm blamed for 500+ deaths didn't happen, says study

Saturday, August 24th 2019, 1:30 pm - This ancient mystery just got stranger.

Roopkund Lake Roopkund Lake, August 2014. Image courtesy Schwiki. CC BY-SA 4.0

Some 5,000 metres above sea level in the Himalayan mountains sits the site of one of the most lethal hailstorms of all time.

At least, that's what researchers thought it was.

Scattered around Roopkund Lake -- known to locals and fans of the mysterious as 'Skeleton Lake' -- are the remains of hundreds of people; as many as 800 by some estimates. The site has been the object of macabre fascination since it was rediscovered in the 1940s, and numerous theories have been suggested to explain how this remote lake became the final resting place for so many.

roopkund locator nature Image courtesy Nature/EurekAlert

In the early 2000s, a team commissioned to study the remains found they were killed by powerful blows to the head and shoulders -- a finding that led researchers to conclude the remains belonged to unfortunate travellers, circa 800 AD, who were caught in a monster hailstorm. "The only plausible explanation for so many people sustaining such similar injuries at the same time is something that fell from the sky," one researcher said at the time, pinning the blame on hailstones up to a staggering 9 inches (22 cm) in diameter.

That kind of hailstorm isn't entirely out of the question in the area around Roopkund, given its elevation and topography, but for one storm to have lasted long enough to kill hundreds of people, even people taken by surprise, would be unusual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a newly-released study confirms that's not what happened.

A new large-scale study shows that Roopkund Lake's skeletons hail not only from not only from different places but from different times -- some separated by as much as a thousand years.

The international team studied DNA from 38 skeletons from the lake and found that while 23 of them seemed consistent with DNA from groups originating in South Asia, 14 were more typical of the Mediterranean, and one had DNA signatures associated with Southeast Asia.

"The discovery of multiple, genetically distinct groups among the skeletons of Roopkund Lake raises the question of whether these individuals died simultaneously or during separate events," reads the study -- a question which it goes on to answer, at least in part.

Human Skeletons in Roopkund Lake Remains at Roopkund Lake. Image courtesy Schwiki. CC BY-SA 4.0*

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the genetically South Asian group (Roopkund_A), the West Eurasian group (Roopkund_B), and the lone member with East Asian-related ancestry (Roopkund_C) were not only divided in origin, but in time as well.

"We find that the Roopkund_A and Roopkund_B groups are separated in time by ~1000 years," say the authors, with Roopkund_A ranging from the 7th to 10th centuries AD, and Roopkund_B ranging from the 17th to 20th centuries. Roopkund_C also dated from the later time period.

"These findings refute previous suggestions that the skeletons of Roopkund Lake were deposited in a single catastrophic event."

While this study seems to raise more questions than it answers -- what drew all of these people to this remote lake, hundreds of years apart, for one? -- it doesn't entirely discount previous research on the site. Several of the studied skeletons did show signs of having been hit by large hail. But -- given the thousand years between groups -- a single storm can no longer be blamed.

"The history of Roopkund Lake is more complex than we ever anticipated, and raises the striking question of how migrants from the eastern Mediterranean, who have an ancestry profile that is extremely atypical of the region today, died in this place only a few hundred years ago," says David Reich, one of the study's authors.

"It is still not clear what brought these individuals to Roopkund Lake or how they died," adds author Niraj Rai. "We hope that this study represents the first of many analyses of this mysterious site."

Thumbnail: Remains at Roopkund Lake. Image courtesy Schwiki. CC BY-SA 4.0*

Sources: Nature | Atlas Obscura | National Geographic | Daily Beast |

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