Hindu (29-06-2004)
Fathoming the ancient remains of Roopkund
By Aniket Alam

HYDERABAD: The ancient mysteries of the Roopkund Lake in Chamoli district of Uttaranchal are finally beginning to unravel to the technologies of the 21st century.

Known locally as "Mystery Lake," Roopkund, which is located at an altitude of 5,029 metres in the lap of Trishul peak, is reported to have about 200 human skeletons strewn around its vicinity and on its bed. The skeletons are clearly visible through the waters during the one-month when the ice melts. The rest of the year, the lake remains frozen.

Last year, 30 of the skeletal remains, some with flesh attached, were retrieved by the National Geographic magazine and brought to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology here for detailed DNA tests.

Various theories for the presence of the skeletons, much above the highest inhabitable point in the Himalayas, have been doing the rounds: that they are remains of soldiers, of pilgrims, of Chinese travellers. The ancient remains have also been linked to the Pandavas. But none of these theories has been authenticated, as yet.

"The skeletons definitely are of Indians, not Chinese, and we also have some clues about the region from where they came," said Lalji Singh, Director, CCMB. He refused to identify the region, citing the agreement with the magazine as well as the need for further DNA tests on the population of that specific region before the final results are confirmed.

He was, however, willing to confirm other details.

"The skeletal remains are of men, women and children and maybe they were a family," Dr. Singh said since the DNA of some skeletons matched each other.

They are of tall people and have the distinguishing feature of an extra bone in their skulls, a rare feature which helped identify the probable population group.

"The height and build of one skeleton reminded us of 'Bheema' [one of the Pandava brothers]," he said in a lighter vein.

Ancient DNA research began in CCMB last year on an experimental basis.

With the success achieved with the Roopkund skeletons, the Department of Biotechnology and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research have decided to upgrade it into a permanent facility.

The CCMB is only the fourth laboratory in the world that is capable of doing ancient DNA research.

It recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Anthropological Survey of India to study the DNA of ancient human skeletal remains dating back to 1000 BC.

This would help in understanding the genetic variation in the Indian subcontinent and on various issues of Indian history.

India has over 5,000 distinct human population groups and CCMB has already collected the DNA samples of 8,000 people of different groups.

Though the 60,000-year old Jarawa people of the Andamans are generally considered the oldest population group, the distinction may actually be with some hunter-gatherer groups in Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

And they seem to be related to African population groups, Dr. Singh said.