Combining genetics with genealogy to identify the dead in unmarked graves

The method developed by Montreal researchers to identify the remains of a man, who died in 1833, may lead to identifying many of the thousands of remains in unmarked graves in Quebec’s old cemeteries.

Gravestones in Quebec did not come into common use until the second half of the 19th century, so historical cemeteries contain many unmarked graves.

To test their method’s identification potential, researchers selected six unidentified male skeletons that had been exhumed over the years at four historical cemeteries in Quebec.
Photo: Isabelle Ribot, Université de Montréal.

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 — compared the genetic markers from these historical remains with the same genetic markers from over 960 modern Quebecers who had volunteered to be genotyped in an earlier research project and whose genealogy had been established using population data from the BALSAC database. Through this process, the researchers were able to deduce the genetic profiles of approximately 1.7 million individuals from historical Quebec.

The BALSAC database lists Catholic baptisms, marriages and burials in Quebec, and it has been linked to a genetic database. It also contains the genealogical relationships linking five million individuals, the vast majority of whom married in Quebec, over the past four centuries.

Tommy Harding’s research at the Université de Montréal focuses on the identification of ancient human remains using genetic and genealogical data. 
Photo: Shaun Simpson.

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.”

Before a reform in 1854, almost all of the graves in Quebec were anonymous.

Brad Loewen, who is the study’s co-author and anthropologist at the Université de Montréal, told La Presse, “The tradition of tombstones spread widely from the 1890s onwards, from the cities. It comes with the expansion of the funeral industry. 

“In rural parishes, the use of mass graves (where the remains were kept during the months when the ground was frozen) persisted until the 20th century. In the spring, the bodies were buried quickly, with few formalities and without tombstones. Religious establishments largely escaped the funeral industry, and the use of mass graves persisted for a long time. This includes residential schools, and this means that deceased students were often in anonymous graves. ”

Unknown soldiers
In addition to identifying Indigenous remains, the development of this research could help identify the remains of 27,000 Canadian soldiers who are believed to buried overseas. 

With BALSAC, it will be easier to identify the soldiers, at least the French Canadians. 

Dr. Harding told La Presse that English Canadians are more difficult to identify He said, “Protestants were less zealous about keeping records.” 

The entire English version of the Université de Montréal article, Anonymous no more: combining genetics with genealogy to identify the dead in unmarked graves, can be read on the university’s website.

The French version, Une méthode conçue par une équipe de généticiens, d’archéologues et de démographes pourrait permettre d’identifier les milliers de dépouilles anonymes des cimetières historiques du Québec, is also available on the university’s website.

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2 Responses to Combining genetics with genealogy to identify the dead in unmarked graves

  1. Pat says:

    Gail, how can I use the BALSAC database for genealogical research? Am not familiar with this. Thanks.

  2. Lisa Dillon says:

    It was actually the PRDH which created the genealogical data from 1621-1799 (the Registre de la population du Québec ancien, or RPQA), not BALSAC. Genealogists can consult the PRDH data for genealogical research at If you are a university-based researcher who wishes to use the PRDH data for academic research, you can have access to the full database for free — just sent me an e-mail at
    Lisa Dillon
    Directrice, PRDH

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