Forensic Odontology: An Overview and Bite Mark Controversy
Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the body. Because of enamel’s durability, teeth and dental evidence can withstand conditions that the rest of the body cannot. In addition to the dentition, or the arrangement and condition of the teeth, the size and shape of the skull itself, including the jaw bone, can help determine gender, age, and race of unidentified victims or assailants when combined with additional evidence.
Drawing of different human adult teeth. Image found in Elements of biology: a practical text-book correlating botany, zoology, and human physiology by George William Hunter, published in 1907 by the American Book Company.
Forensic odontology is the application of dental evidence to both criminal and civil law. This can include identifying sexual abuse; personal identification of the deceased, especially in cases of mass disaster or when facial recognition is inconclusive; or in determining ages of unidentified victims. Though identifications have been made by dental recognition since the time of the Roman Empire, and the first recorded case of forensic odontology being used to convict a murder suspect in the United States occurred in 1849, the science had not been frequently applied to court cases in the United States before the 1950s.
The validity of the science of forensic odontology has come into question over the last few decades, especially as DNA analysis has been more heavily relied on since the 1990s. As convictions continue to be overturned due to insufficient evidence, especially in cases which almost soley relied on dental evidence, experts continue to question the full validity of forensic odontology as a standalone practice. While forensic odontological evidence can be helpful in both criminal and civil law cases, it is not a conclusive form of evidence unless coupled with other sufficient evidence.
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