Latest DNA-based evidence confirming the human remains found dumped in an abandoned well in the Ajnala town of Punjab’s Amritsar belonged to 246 young Indian soldiers who were brutally killed after they revolted against the British during the 1857 Indian uprising and belonged to the Gangetic plains, researchers said Thursday.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics on Thursday, identified the individual soldiers as belonging to that of the 26th Native Bengal Infantry regiment of the British Indian Army. The new evidence has put a lid on all hypotheses and folklore swirling around the Sepoy Mutiny in this Punjab district.
Archaeologists have called the site the largest possessing skeletal remains linked to any single event during the 1857 Indian rebellion.
Digging up the past
Underneath the present-day religious structure in this Punjab town, the abandoned well-turned-dumping site in Ajnala had found a detailed mention in a textbook authored by a British official. The book, written by the then serving deputy commissioner of Amritsar in 1857, narrated how British officers forcing the use of beef and pork-greased cartridges met with strong opposition from the Indian soldiers stationed at Mian Mir cantonment (in present-day Lahore in Pakistan ). After killing some British officers, a few hundred Indian soldiers fled toward Punjab (present day India) but were eventually captured, imprisoned, and later killed near Ajnala. As many as 282 Indian soldiers were killed, the book stated.
With the mass killing being a highly sensitive issue with the potential to trigger socio-political tensions in 1857, the concerned British officers decided to immediately dispose of their bodies by dumping them in the well at Ajnala. For several years following this 1857 mass killing, the incident never attracted much attention though it preceded events like the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh incident involving General Reginald Dyer. Later, some historians hypothesised that these skeletal remains at Ajnala well belonged to individuals killed during the violence after the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947.
The interest in tracing the origins of the dead stemmed in 2014 after an amateur group of local archaeologists unscientifically exhumed some skeletal remains from this well. The same year, the government tasked a group led by anthropologist JS Sehrawat from Panjab University to scientifically investigate the matter.
Teeth, jaw fragments, vertebrae, skulls, phalanges (bone of the finger or toe), femur (thigh bone), clavicles (collar bone), bones of arms along with some coins, jewellery, and medals were unearthed from the well site. As many as 9,646 teeth samples—the world’s largest teeth remain from a single archaeological site—were recovered. Of these, over 4,000 have been analysed so far.
Apart from the fact that bone remains were available in abundance, the researchers performed a thorough study of the teeth samples also because the 165-year-old bone remains were not well preserved, and had severe damage making them unfit for the scope of a proper scientific study.
DNA was extracted from 50 good quality teeth samples and subjected to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis to determine the genetic origins from biological samples. In addition, 85 teeth samples were subjected to oxygen isotope analysis. Researchers said that the composition of tooth enamel with respect to elements like lead, zinc, and carbon increases with the person’s age whereas there are certain other elements whose composition decreases with growing age.
“Food we eat regularly leaves some deposits on the tooth enamel. Upon analysis of such recovered teeth samples, it is possible to trace the plant or animal foods that were consumed. In the present study, the foods like legumes and lentil traces were found in the enamel. Thus origins of these killed soldiers were straight traced to the Gangetic plains,” said co-researcher Gyaneshwar Chaubey from the Department of Zoology at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
The numerous research methods supported that the human skeletons found in the well were not of people living in Punjab or Pakistan, as commonly believed. “Rather, the DNA sequences matched with the people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal,” said senior investigator K Thangaraj, the chief scientist at CSIR – Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, and the director of the Center for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad.
Remains of soldiers
Speaking to The Indian Express, Sehrawat said, “On the basis of trace elements and ancient DNA analysis, the average age of the soldiers was calculated to be between 21 to 49 years, with an average of 33 years. As the element deposition in bone varies with age, more than 89 per cent of tooth samples were found to be in the 21 to 49 years age bracket.”
In order to establish that the 246 Indians were soldiers, the group also performed a detailed dental pathology analysis. The dental assemblages of teeth samples were killed compared with existing data sets of skeletal remains of German soldiers of the same age group who were killed during World War II. “We found that these would have been healthy individuals and it is their overall sound health which could possibly have landed them as soldiers. Being in the army, they enjoyed facilities to maintain good dental health and hygiene,” said Sehrawat, a forensic anthropologist.
Along with skeletal remains, archaeologists also recovered some jewellery, medals, and coins —some bearing emblems of Queen Victoria dating to 1799, 1806, 1841 and 1853. These non-biological remains further authenticated that the remains were that of soldiers.
Tortured and killed
The bone analysis also revealed the extent of atrocities committed against the Indian soldiers. Each of the 86 unbroken recovered skulls carried injury marks between their eyebrows. “Each skull had signs of trauma, an indication of bullets that were shot from a point-blank range,” added Sehrawat.
In addition, the excavators recovered stone bullets, too, which were commonly used in the 19th century to kill captive people. Fractured pelvic bones were another common feature observed among the bone samples, suggesting physical assault and cruelties that the Indians were subjected to, before being shot dead.
Sehrawat said, “Looking at the condition of the skeletal remains, we can now establish that the bodies were thrown from a certain height into the well instead of burying them into graves.”
The lead researcher of this study Niraj Rai from Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, shared that this scientific research by the team will help look at Indian history in a more evidence-based manner.