I saw this during my DNA search today on Phys.org – Anonymous no more: combining genetics with genealogy to identify the dead in unmarked graves: https://phys.org/news/2020-02-anonymous-combining-genetics-genealogy-dead.html. Complete article was over 900 words, but shortened it in this post to around 500 words. Definitely worth a read if you want to learn more about how they achieved the high success rate with this project.
In Quebec, gravestones did not come into common use until the second half of the 19th century, so historical cemeteries contain many unmarked graves. Inspired by colleagues at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, a team of researchers in genetics, archaeology and demography from three Quebec universities (Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières) conducted a study in which they combined genealogical information from BALSAC (a Quebec database that is the only one of its kind in the world) with genetic information from more than 960 modern Quebecers in order to access the genetic profile of Quebec’s historical population. The results, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, suggest the capabilities that this method may offer in the near future.
The BALSAC database contains the genealogical relationships linking five million individuals, the vast majority of whom married in Quebec, over the past four centuries. Work on developing this database began in 1972 at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi under the direction of historian Gérard Bouchard.
The first author of this study is Tommy Harding, a postdoctoral researcher at Université de Montréal who specializes in DNA sequencing. BALSAC, he said, “is a fabulous database for researchers, because both the quantity and the quality of the data that it contains are truly exceptional. The parish records meticulously kept by Catholic priests have been very well preserved so that today, thanks to advances in technology, it is possible to use this data to identify the bones from unmarked graves.”
Using the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA
This study was directed by Damian Labuda, an expert in genetic structure and diversity who is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Université de Montréal and its affiliated Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Centre. “Genetics,” he said, “has of course been used many times to identify the remains of historical figures, such as the members of the Romanov Russian imperial family who were killed by the Bolsheviks and buried in a common grave, or the English king Richard III, who died in 1483 and whose remains were discovered in 2012.
“What is different about our research team’s genetic method,” Dr. Labuda added, “is that we use the information contained in two genetic markers that are transmitted to children by only one parent: the Y chromosome, which is passed from fathers to their sons, and mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mothers both to their daughters and to their sons. These two genetic molecules are inherited with few modifications (that is, mutations), so that individuals today have the same, or almost the same, DNA sequence as their ancestors who lived more than 10 generations earlier.”