How genetics helped anthropologists crack a Sepoy Mutiny era mystery

Sacrifices of valorous soldiers going unnoticed is not something new. Here’s a fascinating story of a battalion of Indian soldiers that fought valiantly against the British and was martyred some 165 years ago during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

The sacrifices made by these unsung heroes during the famed Sepoy Mutiny, also known as the First War of Indian Independence, now come to light through a joint study conducted by a group of anthropologists and scientists.

The study cracked the mystery of scores of human skeletons accidentally found in an abandoned village of Ajnala in Punjab in 2014. Though a hypothesis suggested that the remains belonged to Indian soldiers that rebelled against the British in 1857, a debate raged over the likely origins of the soldiers.

Degraded samples

The scientists used mitochondrial DNA and stable isotope analysis to ascertain the origin of the martyrs.

JS Sehrawat, an anthropologist from Panjab University, worked with the Center for Cellular & Molecular Biology Hyderabad (CCMB), Birbal Sahni Institute (Lucknow), and Benaras Hindu University (BHU) to establish the roots of these martyrs using DNA and isotope analyzes.

“We have successfully isolated DNA from cementum-rich material of 50 good-quality random teeth samples and analyzed mtDNA haplogroups. We also analyzed 85 individuals for oxygen isotopes, ”the scientists said in the paper published in Frontiers in Genetics.

“The closest possible geographical affinity of these skeletal remains is the eastern part of India, largely covering the Gangetic plain region,” it said.

The main challenge the scientists faced was the quality of the samples. The remains were damaged and degraded.

Book excerpt

The findings were juxtaposed with an excerpt from an obscure book authored by a civil servant of the British East India Company and Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar in 1857. It referred to a mass burial site in the village.

It documented the capture, imprisonment and eventual killings of 282 Indian soldiers of the 26 th Native Bengal Infantry regiment of the British Indian army, ”the paper said.

The 26 th Native Bengal Infantry battalion was stationed at the Mian-Meer cantonment and comprised soldiers from Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (eastern) and some north-eastern states.

After killing a few British officers, the rebels deserted the cantonment. Later, about 282 of them were held near Agnala and were eliminated.

Published on

April 28, 2022


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