Solved: Mystery of 160-year-old Punjab mass grave dug up in 2014

The shroud of mystery surrounding a mass grave of nearly 160-year-old human skeletons dug up at Ajnala in Punjab appears to be lifting, eight years after the discovery left scientists and anthropologists divided about their identity. The latest study reveals that the skeletons were of 246 soldiers from the Gangetic plains executed by the British for killing an officer during the 1857 uprising.

These soldiers were possibly attached to the 26th Native Bengal Infantry Battalion posted at Mian-Meer, now in Pakistan, according to CSIR's Centre For Cellular and Molecular Biology. The new thesis contradicts what some historians have claimed — that the skeletons excavated from a well in Ajnala town in 2014 could be of people killed in the Partition riots.

While the identity and geographic origins of these skeletons were debated for want of scientific evidence, the study published on Thursday in the scientific journal "Frontiers in Genetics" cites 50 samples sent for DNA analysis and 85 specimens for isotope analysis.

"DNA analysis helps understand the ancestry of people and isotope analysis sheds light on food habits. Both research methods support the theory that the skeletons found in the well were not of people living in Punjab or Pakistan. Rather, DNA sequences matched those from UP, Bihar and West Bengal," said Dr K Thangaraj, chief scientist at CCMB. Dr J S Sehrawat, an anthropologist from Panjab University, said the findings were "consistent with historical evidence that the 26th Native Bengal Infantry Battalion comprised people from the eastern parts of Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and UP".

CCMB director Dr Vinay Nandicoori said DNA study was a powerful tool not only to understand the past but also find a historical perspective. He said CCMB planned to take up a largescale "ancient DNA study to help unravel several historical and prehistoric details".

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