Physical Anthropology

How can teeth be used to identify a person?
Answered by HowStuffWorks
  • HowStuffWorks

    HowStuffWorks

  1. Teeth aren't as unique to a person as a fingerprint, but dental evidence can be instrumental in establishing a person's identity. The size of teeth can give clues to a person's approximate age because of how fast teeth grow -- about four micrometers a day. Different ethnic groups also tend to have distinctive dental features, such as incisors with concave backs. The patterns left on teeth over time due to the wear and tear of a person's eating habits and lifestyle can also provide convincing evidence about a person's identity.

    It's up to forensic dentists to examine teeth for clues to someone's identity. Theirs is a specialized kind of dentistry in which the dentist uses his or her skills and training to assist investigators in establishing an unknown person's identity. This kind of dentistry can be invaluable in identifying human remains, because in many cases teeth are the only distinctive remains to survive. Forensic dentists compare surviving teeth with dental records or look for distinctive marks left on teeth by a person's lifestyle. They also analyze bite marks. (Suspects in criminal investigations often have casts of their teeth compared with bite marks that may have been found at a crime scene. A person's teeth, as well as the way a person bites, can leave distinctive marks or patterns that a forensic dentist can use to make an identification.)

    Teeth are not cataloged in a central database, like DNA, so forensic dentists use the dental records we mentioned above in order to make comparisons. The records are created according to a standard format. People have multiple types of teeth, as well as multiples of some of those types. For example, a full set of teeth in an adult includes two upper central incisors as well as two upper lateral incisors. Each tooth, then, needs a unique designation to identify it. There are several prominent methods for labeling teeth, and the most popular way in the United States is the Universal System. The Universal System assigns each person's teeth with numbers, 1 through 32, starting with the upper-right third molar and progressing to the lower-right third molar. (Baby teeth, however, are assigned a letter or a letter-number combination.) Dentists create charts for their patients using the Universal System, making notations for each tooth to show distinctive characteristics like fillings or chips. It is these records that can be so helpful to a forensic dentist who needs to identify a body.

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