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Bones Found in Punjab Well Belonged to Participants of 1857 Mutiny: Study

Bones Found in Punjab Well Belonged to Participants of 1857 Mutiny: Study

A steel engraving titled ‘Blowing Mutinous Sepoys From the Guns, September 8th, 1857’. Photo: Illustrated Times/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

  • A large number of human bones were found by amateur archaeologists in an abandoned well in Punjab’s Ajnala in 2014.
  • Two hypotheses were presented at the time: that the remains belonged to Indian soldiers who participated in the 1857 revolt; or victims of mass violence during Partition in 1947.
  • Genetic and chemical analyses of the remains have confirmed that the bones are 165 years old and belonged to adult males hailing from the Gangetic plains.

New Delhi: An analysis of human bones found in an abandoned well in Punjab has confirmed that they are the remains of Indian soldiers from the Gangetic plains who participated in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

The bones were excavated by amateur archaeologists in Ajnala, a town in Amritsar district, in February 2014. At the time of their discovery, two theories emerged: whether they were bodies of soldiers who participated in the 1857 revolt (sometimes called the First War of Independence), or bodies of people who were killed in the mass violence during India’s partition in 1947.

Scientists who conducted genetic and chemical analyses of the remains have now confirmed that the bones are 165 years old. All of them are adult males from Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and eastern Uttar Pradesh, a paper published on Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Genetics that describes the analyses said.

The theory that the remains could belong to victims of mass violence during partition was easy to rule out, since coins with engravings of Queen Victoria and the year of their make were also retrieved during the excavation. None of the marks dated beyond 1856.

“Such claims were also refuted by the radiocarbon dates measured from some teeth collagen samples,” the paper says.

Therefore, the researchers proceeded to test the theory that the bodies belonged to Indian sepoys who revolted against the British in 1857. For this, the scientists relied on an obscure historical account of the revolt by Frederick Henry Cooper, a civil servant of the British East India Company who was the deputy commissioner of Amritsar in 1857.

He mentioned a “mass burial site in an abandoned well lying underneath a religious structure at Ajnala”. The account described the capture, imprisonment, and eventual killings of 282 Indian soldiers of the 26th Native Bengal Infantry regiment of the British Indian Army, stationed at the Mian-Meer cantonment in Lahore, in present-day Pakistan. The soldiers of the regiment were drawn from Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (eastern), and some northeastern states.

Cooper says the soldiers killed some British officers and fled from the cantonment. However, 282 of them were captured near Ajnala and were killed, and their bodies were dumped in an abandoned well.

(A) Ajnala on the map of India; (B) Abandoned well where skeletons were found; (C) Skulls and long bones exhumed from the well; (D) Mandibles with attached tooth samples. Photos: By arrangement

While preliminary analysis supported the hypothesis that the remains were from the mid-19th century, the identity of these soldiers and their geographic origins remained a mystery to a lack of scientific evidence.

J.S. Sehrawat, an anthropologist from Panjab University, Chandigarh, collaborated with the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad and the Birbal Sahni Institute in Lucknow to establish the roots of these soldiers using genetic and chemical isotope studies.

The researchers used 50 samples for DNA analysis and 85 specimens for isotope analysis.

“DNA analysis helps understand people’s ancestry, and isotope analysis sheds light on food habits,” said K. Thangaraj, chief scientist of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), and a senior member of the team.

“Both the research methods indicated that the human skeletons found in the well were not of people living in Punjab (spread across present-day India and Pakistan). Rather, DNA sequences matched with the people from UP, Bihar, and West Bengal,” Thangaraj added.

According to The Tribune, the genetic studies relied on mitochondrial DNA, inherited from mothers, to trace genetic affinity and ancestry. “The chemical isotope studies on the tooth samples pointed to long-term residence in the Gangetic plains and coastal areas such as Odisha,” the newspaper said.

“The results from this research are consistent with the historical evidence that the 26th Native Bengal Infantry Battalion consisted of people from the eastern part of Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” said Sehrawat, the first author of the study.

According to Gyaneshwer Chaubey, from the Department of Zoology, BHU, the findings add a significant chapter to the history of the “unsung heroes of India’s first freedom struggle.”

“This study confirms two things: First the Indian soldiers were killed during the 1857 revolt and second that they are from Ganga plain, and not from Punjab,” Chaubey, who played a crucial role in the DNA study, told PTI.

In the paper, the researchers also say that the “unscientific excavation” by amateur archaeologists added to the challenge of identifying the bodies. The integrity of the already fragile and brittle remains was further compromised during the exhumation, they said. The government’s delayed intervention also led to the loss of forensic evidence, they say.

The fact that the bodies were still identified has great consequences, the authors say. “Our results expect to lay the groundwork and make a rich contribution to similar forensic investigations in the future for exploring the biological profile of remains even if recovered in mangled and damaged shape,” they wrote.

(With PTI inputs)

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