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Methods of forensic investigations throughout the years

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

For those who are not familiar with the term, forensic investigation or forensic science, also known as criminalistics, is the application of science to criminal and civil laws, mainly on the criminal side - during investigations. However, it is time we think back to the origin of forensics investigations. Forensic investigation practices can be dated back as early as the Ancient Greek and Roman societies. Those civilisations made significant contributions to the field of medicine, especially pharmacology. Their research on the production, use and symptoms of toxins made the study of their use in past murders possible. Forensic science as a part of the modern-day criminal justice system is still developing. Interestingly, the importance of forensic science dates back to some of the ancient civilizations.

Importance of forensic science in Ancient Egypt and Rome:

Did you know that the Egyptian civilization back in 3000 BC performed the first ‘autopsy’? They performed a religious practice of removing and examining the internal organs of humans after their death. Thus, they are the earliest civilization to perform an autopsy.

However, the first forensic investigation is said to have been performed in 44 BC. Roman physician, Antistius, examined the dead body of Roman politician and general, Julius Caesar. The autopsy revealed that though stabbed 23 times, his death actually resulted from one wound through this chest. After, early in the 1st century AD, Roman orator and jurist Quintilian used basic forensics to acquit and innocent.

Importance of forensic science in Ancient China:

After the Roman Civilisation, Ancient China also started using forensic investigations to solve crimes. For example, Xi Yuan Lu is the first written testimony of the use of medicine and entomology to solve crimes. This book is one of the earliest literature that helped determine the cause of death. The book explained how to distinguish an accidental death from a murder by examining the weapon used to cause death. It threw light upon important topics such as preserving evidence during the examination process, making an antiseptic, calculating the time of death based on the weather and insects and washing a dead body for examination. In the book, the investigator tests various blades on an animal carcass and compares the wound to the actual one. This helped him deduce that the weapon used to commit the murder was a sickle. Next, he asks residents of the crime area to bring their sickles to one location. Eventually, the murderer confessed when the smell of blood caused flies to gather on his sickle. At the same time, the book also provided method and logic to estimate if a death resulted from suicide, accident or murder.

Importance of Lie Detectors in Forensic Science in Ancient Asia:

The earliest precursor to the Polygraph test was the examination of the saliva, mouth, and tongue of a suspect to deduce innocence or guilt. For example, in Ancient India, the suspect’s mouth was filled with some dry rice and in China with rice powder. They were then asked to spit it out. In some Middle-Eastern cultures, the accused would have to lick heated metal rods. The principle used for these methods was that a guilty person would produce less saliva. Thus, if rice got stuck in their mouths or if their tongues got severely burnt, they were pronounced guilty.

The 16th & 17th Centuries in the History of Forensic Science:

In 16th century Europe, the gathering of information on the cause and manner of death was first initiated by medical practitioners. For example, a French surgeon, Ambroise Paré, carefully studied the effect of violent death on internal organs. Italian surgeons, Fortunato Fidelis and Paolo Zacchia laid the foundation of modern pathology. They achieved this through studying the changes occurring in the structure of a body due to a disease. With the dawn of the 17th century, the importance of forensic science received a boost resulting due to the other advancements in science.

Modern Forensic Science Techniques Start Taking Shape:

The forthcoming centuries witnessed a resurrection of forensic science with an increase in the application of science in solving crimes. Techniques such as matching evidence like clothing fibers and footprints to those found suspects are starting to gain popularity. Gradually, criminal investigations started revolving more around evidence-based and rational approaches. Soon, the validity of confessions under duress and belief in occult practices like witchcraft started disappearing from courts.

Fingerprint Analysis – A major milestone in the History of Forensic Science:

The technique of fingerprint analysis to link incidents to suspects was a major breakthrough in forensic science in 1880. Fingerprint analysis resulted from the groundbreaking theory established by Henry Faulds and William James Herschel from how unique fingerprints are. This study gained huge support from experts around the world and was accepted as crucial evidence in the legal system of countries. Even the ancient Chinese used fingerprint analysis for the identification of business documents. It was Francis Galton and Edward Henry who actually implemented Herschel’s fingerprinting practices in criminal investigations. Sir Edward Henry, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police of London, used the direction, flow, pattern and other characteristics in fingerprints to develop his own system of fingerprint analysis. Now, the Henry Classification System is the standard for criminal fingerprint analysis techniques worldwide.

Evolution of the Importance of Forensic Science Through the Ages:

Two famous examples of the use of forensic science in the 18th and 19th century are worth mentioning. These clearly showcase the use of logic and scientific procedures by forensic investigators during that period for criminal investigations. First, the conviction of John Toms in Lancaster for the murder of Edward Culshaw with a pistol. The crucial clue which was a turning point in this investigation was the perfect matching of a pistol wad. This was found from the dead body of Culshaw along with a torn newspaper recovered from Toms’s pocket. The second was the trial and conviction of Warwick, a farm labourer, in 1816. Police retrieved and analysed the footprints and cloth impressions that he left on the damp soil of the crime scene. A matching of the impressions in the earth near the pool where a young maidservant was drowned confirmed his role in her murder.

So, in conclusion, Forensic Science has a rich but undervalued history and a richer potential ahead. Advancements in forensic science are an ongoing process and each day introduces a new technique into the forensic world.

Despite all developments, any investigation still requires a human brain to decipher and rationalise the events of an incident scene. A forensic investigator, at present, has the benefit of numerous tools and medical and scientific advancements at their disposal. In fact, a trained crime scene investigator bears the responsibility of correctly analysing, retrieving and collecting evidence from a crime scene by leveraging every available scientific and technological advancement. Nevertheless, one must not forget the human factor that comes into play without which an investigation is incomplete.

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