Giant hail killed more than 200 in Himalayas
By David Orr
For 60 years the skeletal remains of more than 200 people, discovered in 1942 close to the glacial Roopkund Lake in the remote Himalayan Gahrwal region, have puzzled historians, scientists and archaeologists. Were they soldiers killed in battle, royal pilgrims who lost their way and succumbed to hypothermia, or Tibetan traders who died of a mysterious illness?
Now, the first forensic investigation of one of the area's most enduring mysteries has concluded that hundreds of nomads - whose frozen corpses are being disgorged from ice high in the mountain - were killed by one of the most lethal hailstorms in history.
Scientists commissioned by the National Geographic television channel to examine the corpses have discovered that they date from the 9th century - and believe that they died from sharp blows to their skulls, almost certainly by giant hailstones. "We were amazed by what we found," said Dr Pramod Joglekar, a bio-archaeologist at Deccan College, Pune, who was among the team who visited the site 16,500ft above sea level.
"In addition to skeletons, we discovered bodies with the flesh intact, perfectly preserved in the icy ground. We could see their hair and nails as well as pieces of clothing."
The most startling discovery was that many of those who died suffered fractured skulls. "We retrieved a number of skulls which showed short, deep cracks," said Dr Subhash Walimbe, a physical anthropologist at the college. "These were caused not by a landslide or an avalanche but by blunt, round objects about the size of cricket balls."
The team, whose findings will be broadcast in Britain next month, concluded that hailstones were the most likely cause of the injuries after consulting Himalayan historians and meteorological records.
Prof Wolfgang Sax, an anthropologist at Heidelberg University in Germany, cited a traditional song among Himalayan women that describes a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones "hard as iron".
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the heaviest hailstones on record weighed up to 2.2lb and killed 92 people in Bangladesh in 1986.
The National Geographic team believes that those who died at Roopkund were caught in a similar hailstorm from which they were unable to find cover. The balls of ice would have been falling at more than 100mph, killing some victims instantly. Others would have fallen, stunned and injured, and died soon afterwards of hypothermia.
"The only plausible explanation for so many people sustaining such similar injuries at the same time is something that fell from the sky," said Dr Walimbe. "The injuries were all to the top of the skull and not to other bones in the body, so they must have come from above. Our view is that death was caused by extremely large hailstones."
The scientists found glass bangles, indicating the presence of women, in addition to a ring, spear, leather shoes and bamboo staves. They estimate that as many as 600 bodies may still be buried in snow and ice by the lake.
Bone samples collected at the site were sent to the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of Oxford University, where the date of death was established about AD 850 - 400 years earlier than supposed.
The team has yet to resolve the identity of the nomads. DNA from tissue samples suggested that the group was closely related. One match pointed to a community of high-caste Brahmins in central India.
The investigators agreed that the victims were Hindu pilgrims from the plains, rather than the mountains, because of their large size and good health.
"The skeletons are of large and rugged people," said Dr Dibyendukanti Bhattacharya of Delhi University. "They are more like the actors John Wayne or Anthony Quinn. Only a few have the characteristics of the Mongoloid hill people of the Himalayas."
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