During the height of World War II, a bizarre and shocking discovery was made in the Uttarakhand state of India. In an unassuming frozen lake called Roopkund, found deep in the Himalayas, hundreds of human skeletons were discovered by game rangers. They were understandably taken aback. Mystery Lake, as it’s known by locals, is only about two meters deep. So what maniac would put hundreds of bodies in what they’d have to think was an easily-discovered place?
Speculation was rampant shortly after this discovery. Some suggest that a royal family and entourage was felled by a storm and perished. Perhaps the bodies belonged to Japanese soldiers who had starved or frozen to death while trying to cross the mountains. Could a mass murderer have been dumping victims there? Were the bodies the result of animal attacks? Did an avalanche kill all those people? Maybe these people died somewhere else and were pushed into the lake by a landslide or other glacial movement. Nobody knew for sure. All they knew at first was that between three and five hundred bodies were found, literally filling Roopkund Lake all the way to the bottom. Once the ice melted, skeletons floated to the surface and lined the outside of the lake, which we can only imagine was both incredibly spooky and incredibly gross.
Despite its remote location and ghoulish décor (or perhaps because of it), Roopkund Lake remains a popular tourist destination among climbers. In the summer, when the ice is minimal, many skeletons can be seen—some still having hair or other viscera attached. Despite regular visitors though, nobody knew how Skeleton Lake came to earn its name until recently. Worse still, many tourists have been helping themselves to bones and even skulls during their visit. Perhaps they felt they’ve earned a souvenir after making the treacherous trek. Someone should remind those tourists that they’re essentially graverobbing. Roopkund Lake is now protected as an eco-tourist destination, which means stealing from the site is a punishable offense. Still, the mystery remained.
Enter Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The research team found that the remains belonged to two distinct groups of people, and that it’s possible that Skeleton Lake got its name from two separate events. They concluded that most of the bodies originated from about 800 years ago, but weren’t able to get more specific.
In 2004, National Geographic sent a team to further investigate, using newer technologies to find fresh answers. Partial results can be seen in an episode of the NatGeo documentary program, Riddle of the Dead. So what happened? The team found that nearly all the bodies had identical holes in their skulls. They ruled out suicide (since there were no guns to be had there), and suspected that some sort of blunt tool might have been used. This implied ritual sacrifice or other ceremonial deaths. The ultimate finding is a bit less sensational.
They concluded that Roopkund Lake was located in a portion of the Himalayas frequented by freak hailstorms. If a large group of travelers migrating through the mountains, or even fleeing from invaders, was caught in it, then the result would be massive deaths resulting from cranial fractures. That’s right: the mystery of Skeleton Lake, and roughly 500 deaths, was caused by bombardment of golf ball-sized hail. That’s pretty scary, though maybe not as scary as a mountain lake full of unexplained skeletons.