Are teeth really as unique as fingerprints?

Criminology: The dentition offers more than a fingerprint

Our teeth, with their jawbones and teeth, are unique and contain a lot of information that is of interest to doctors, researchers and criminologists. They provide information about age, gender, DNA, diseases and also about a person's identity. This property has been used since the last 19th century, so that previously unanswered questions could be clarified. In addition to fingerprints and DNA analyzes, the before-and-after comparison of the teeth is one of the three established methods of identification.

Forensic dentistry for identification

The field of forensic dentistry is essentially concerned with the identification of corpses whose identity is unclear. The dentition and teeth of a dead person are compared, for example, with x-rays or denture impressions that were made during his lifetime. Since a human set of teeth is unique, like a fingerprint, the identity can be determined with great certainty.

Dental identification was used for the first time after a fire disaster in Vienna in 1881. The victims, who were badly burned, could no longer be identified by visual inspection and instead they made do with comparing the positions of the teeth.

Famous examples of the identification of corpses by comparing their teeth are Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun. The death of both could be confirmed using this method. Forensic dentistry also proved the death of J. F. Kennedy's killer. To cite more recent examples, dental identification has so far been used to identify victims in disasters such as the attack on the World Trade Center, the great earthquake in Fukushima in 2011 and the Germanwings plane crash in 2015.

Conviction of perpetrators

In addition to identifying victims, the dentition can also be useful in convicting offenders. As an example, a bite wound by the perpetrator on the victim reflects the imprint of the dentition and can provide information about characteristics such as age and gender or, ideally, lead directly to the perpetrator. Just like fingerprints and DNA traces do. Or the victim leaves a bite wound on the perpetrator. This print in turn reveals the perpetrator in this case and can be clearly assigned to the victim.

Information from a bygone era

In addition to the identification of current corpses, the jaws and teeth of long-dead people are examined in the field of forensic anthropology in order to obtain a wide variety of information. For example, anthropologists are able to determine information about the sex, approximate age on the date of death and the age of the corpse from a mummy or bog body that is thousands of years old, but they can also draw conclusions about the cause of death. The teeth also provide information about possible diseases the corpse suffered from before it died. They also offer an optimal substance for performing a DNA analysis from which further conclusions can be drawn.

Science uses the uniqueness of teeth for the investigation of criminal cases, for the identification of corpses and for research into bygone times. The knowledge gained in this way continues to contribute to progress today and will also contribute to clarification in the future.