Forensic Odontology: Dentists Examining The Secrets of Death
Forensic Odontology: Dentists Examining The Secrets of Death
We have all seen those riveting detective murder mystery shows on TV, where the deceased victim is identified via their dental records. Forensic odontology is the field where dentists examine the secrets of death. Our teeth and bones are, also, great identifiers of age for forensic scientists examining bodies post mortem. Teeth, like tree rings, can tell us a lot about how long we have been alive. Teeth become worn over time and through use. Human beings have three stages of teeth if you count our first baby teeth, adult teeth, and then wisdom teeth or third molars. Yes, teeth have a lot to say even in death.
“Forensic odontology is a subspecialty of dentistry that has as its main focus on the identification of deceased persons. This is usually a single victim but comparisons between postmortem findings and antemortem dental records have been shown to be the preeminent method for identification in mass disaster situations.”
– Science Direct
Dentists For Dead People
Dental records can be great identifiers of human beings in situations where other means of identification are not possible. Bodies that have been horrendously damaged or are missing key identifiers, like faces and fingers, can, sometimes, only be authenticated by their teeth and dental records. Gangland killings and mass disasters, like train and plane crashes, often call upon forensic odontology to identify victims. Although these occurrences are terrible tragedies for the victims and their families – forensic dentists can provide much appreciated certainty in these appalling circumstances.
“Forensic odontology is a specialist dental science required within the criminal justice system. Forensic odontologists perform examinations required by law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners. They work to identify perpetrators and victims, usually by comparing dental records with human remains and bite marks.“
– Adelaide University
Forensic Science & The Study Of The Dead’s Teeth
The law demands answers for crimes perpetuated upon victims. Forensic science can provide many of these key identifying elements in the judicial quest. In addition to putting names to victims forensic odontology can estimate their age and possible cause of death if their dental condition was a contributing factor. Another aspect of this forensic science is bite mark analysis. Injuries involving the oral and perioral regions can be examined and compared by forensic dental experts. Every bite is unique and like finger prints can identify perpetrator and victim where appropriate. Dental evidence is highly valued in forensic science and therefore within the legal and judicial realms. Court proceedings are no stranger to bite mark evidence paving the way for convictions and successful defences.
Even Ancient Teeth Have A Lot To Tell Us
Archaeology is another scientific study, which regularly calls upon forensic odontology to identify ancient preserved skeletal remains found in-situ on digs. Many of us are familiar with that long running YouTube and TV series Time Team. The well-known face of actor Tony Robinson telling us all that the team have just three days to solve their archaeological quest for answers. On many of these digs skeletal remains are dug up and the forensic odontologists are called in to identify the age and gender of the skull, jaw, and teeth. Once again, our teeth have a lot to tell us about our lives, even in death.
Our Bite For Life
The relationship between teeth, death, and our temporality is profound, in my opinion. Teeth are ancient markers of our mammalian lives, as they connect us with the evolution of our species. The jaw’s story shares the early timeframe with the brainstem. Instinctive great ape beginnings are stored in the jaw and teeth. Our back teeth have deep roots and psychologically teeth affect us far more than the sum of their parts. Dental problems like tooth ache often plague us beyond the size and function of these hard bits in our mouth would indicate. Our teeth seem to be hard wired into our bioelectrical bodies beyond mere tools for chewing. Our appetite for life is connected with our bite.
Big Brained Animals With Teeth
“Why grandma what big teeth you have….”
We are animals despite our big brains. Most of us spend the greater part of our lives living inside the thoughts which inhabit our minds. Our animal selves emerge at key moments like birth, sex, and death. Sporting contests draw out our animal selves. Eating can be a celebratory animal experience. Think of the things you can get your teeth into. Those times when you take a bite out of life. The enormous power contained within our jaws tells us something about our great ape roots. On this basis we can get an understanding of the important role our teeth play in our lives.
Forensic Dentists in the Land of the Living
Thus, the forensic odontologist can trace anthropological evidence from the state of our teeth, even when we are dead. Teeth tell the dental expert what kind of diet the deceased predominantly had over the course of his or her life and at particular formative stages. They can, also, provide information about the overall state of health of the person at the time of death. Examining the teeth of animals and humans has been a common practice for a long time. In the slave trade dealers and prospective buyers would usually forcefully examine the state of a slave’s teeth to determine his or her health status and likely age. Horse and livestock agents will do the same thing today. Teeth have a lot to tell us about ourselves, whether we like it or not, dead or alive.
“Forensic odontology has well-established roots dating back 2000 years. Originally, it was not scientific and certainly not a discipline requiring advanced training. There have been many technological advances in the science of dentistry since the 4th century. Dental imaging techniques, new materials, and methods involving dental care have advanced the profession into the modern era of dentistry. These advances offer the forensic odontologist valuable armamentarium permitting archived cases to be revisited. The disciplines within the forensic odontology profession have expanded beyond dental identifications to include recognition and reporting of child and elder abuse, age assessment, and bitemark analysis. It assists the courts in resolution of civil litigation disputes involving violation of the standard of care and cases involving potential insurance fraud.”
– Bruce A. Schrader, in Forensic Odontology, 2018
Radiocarbon dating of tooth enamel provides an accurate measure of dating the age of an individual. This is helping police and judicial authorities to match deceased victims with missing persons listed in their records. There has been significant advancement in the precision of radiocarbon dating in recent years. In addition, increased availability of this technology is improving the abilities of police authorities to identify victims of crimes and accidents.
– Buchholz BA, Spalding KL. Year of birth determination using radiocarbon dating of dental enamel. Surf Interface Anal. 2010
Forensic Odontology has a valuable role to play in our world today. It brings certainty, where previously uncertainty around identification reigned, and this can contribute to greater peace of mind for families and loved ones in, often, devastating situations.
Identifications Via Wisdom Teeth Development
“The ABFO’s Child and Adolescent Dental Age Assessment Supplemental Technique Guide (ABFO website, www.abfo.org) states that the useful chronologic age interval for late adolescent dental age estimation is between 14 and 21 years, when the third molar is the only tooth undergoing morphologic development. The first evidence of mineralization of the maxillary third molars can occur between 7 and 9 years and can occur in the mandibular third molars between 8 and 10 years. Third molars are the only teeth that will complete their root formation post onset of puberty and that can be anywhere from 18 to 25 years plus threshold.“
– Derek M. Draft, Kathleen A. Kasper, in Age Estimation, 2019
The getting of wisdom may be considered an anachronistic expression these days, but in death wisdom in the form of third molars still has a lot to say. Teeth are, finally, associated with the hard realities in life and it may just be that only dentists are trained to deal with such irrefutable truths.
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