What Can Forensic Odontology be Used For?

The jurisprudence of forensic odontology in criminal cases has become increasingly contested in the use of criminal court cases.  Dental evidence can be used in quite a few ways.

First, there is age determination, which can be made through the size and shape of the teeth, the dentition, or the transparency of tooth roots. Age determination is often used when human remains are uncovered at archaeological sites.

Comparison of Child and Adult DentitionComparison of child and adult dentition.

Second is identification. Forensic odontology is especially helpful in cases of mass disasters or when facial recognition is inconclusive, as the teeth are one of the hardest substances in the human body, and can withstand chemicals, fire, or other substances that further the deterioration of the human body. In cases of mass disaster, identification can be made through missing persons databases and ante mortem dental databases. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 left a number of victims, not all of who were easily identified. By looking at the victims’ teeth and creating an age estimation, it was easier to identify the victims. Carbon-14 dating also allowed for experts to pinpoint the age of the victims at the time of death, leading to accurate identification (this is the same practice that allows for age estimation of remains found on archaeological sites). Tsunamis in Japan and Thailand have also made up a large percentage of cases where victims were identified through forensic odontology. However, the need for forensic odontology in identifying victims of mass disasters could easily be avoided through disaster planning and missing person databases.

Ante-mortem dental radiographAnte-mortem dental radiograph

Third, is bite mark analysis, which begins with being able to positively identify indentation marks left by human teeth. Additionally, the type of tooth, if only a partial indentation, should also be able to be identified by the practitioner. This can be done through the shape of the tooth or indentation, as well as by the tooth roots. Negative impressions can sometimes be made that are utilized in recreating the dentition used to make a bite.

Bitemark in an apple and negative impression taken from the appleNegative impression of a bite mark taken from an apple.

Fourth is abuse. Sexual abuse makes up a large portion of child abuse cases, of which the dental cavity is an excellent indicator. Dental experts often see a torn labial frenum in children under six months or those who are already mobile, which is highly indicative of some sort of abuse like a blow to the mouth or force feeding.

Diagram of the structure of the mouthStructure of the mouth. Diagram by OpenStax College is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Of these four areas, bite mark analysis is by far the most controversial use of forensic odontology and has been contested by some experts for years.