If you watch a lot of crime shows like CSI: Miami, you may already know that teeth are often the only body parts that can survive severe types of destruction, like burning. Because of this, forensic scientists often have only teeth to work with when it comes to identifying a victim of a crime or natural/manmade disaster. In today’s post, our Apex dentist explains some of the things forensics investigators (and anthropologists!) can determine by examining dental fragments.
Age at the Time of Death
Teeth can help indicate how old an unknown victim was when he or she died. This is especially easy to do when the victim is a child or adolescent, since baby teeth erupt on a generally universal schedule. The first baby teeth start to emerge during the first two years of life; the first two permanent incisors and the first permanent molar emerge between 6 and 8 years of age; and the majority of the remaining permanent teeth erupt between the ages of 10 and 12 years of age. Wisdom teeth tend to erupt around 18 years of age.
Using dentition to age adult victims is a bit more challenging. Once the wisdom teeth have erupted, age can only be estimated by only morphological changes within the teeth. These changes include tooth root translucency, which increases with age; dental wear on the teeth; and the ratio of amino acids in the teeth (D-aspartic acids convert to L-aspartic acids with age).
There are very slight differences in the skull structure of different races, which can help assist forensic investigators in identifying victims. People of Asian or Native American descent often have incisors which are shovel-shaped, with ridges on the rear surface of the tooth. People of Caucasian descent tend to have pointier incisors, and smaller teeth overall, often with significant crowding and impacted third molars. Those of African descent rarely have crowding, and the upper teeth often project outwards due to the angled shape of the maxilla. However, these differences are becoming less prevalent, and therefore less useful in identification, as our species becomes less geographically isolated.
Lifestyle & Diet
Teeth hold many clues about an individual’s health issues, even issues that did not originate in the mouth. Tooth loss and erosion of the tooth enamel can be a sign of an eating disorder, or a chronic condition like osteoporosis. Heart disease, skin conditions, blood conditions, and kidney disease can all be identified by examining the teeth. The wear on teeth can also show evidence of what the individual ate and chewed, a detail that is more useful to historic and prehistoric anthropologists.
Individual Dental Characteristics
Forensic dentists can often match victims with specific dental characteristics, like cavity fillings, crown or implant restorations, and orthodontic treatments. If the teeth are damaged by fire, the enamel is often burned off, but post-mortem root canals can still provide clues.
Providing Understanding and Closure
In mass casualty disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, or plane crashes, forensic dentists are enlisted to view the most badly damaged or decomposed remains. Dentists are often be the only ones able to identify the dead, giving them back their names and allowing their families much-needed closure. That’s why, even though it’s unfortunate that these types of situations occur, we should be very grateful for this incredible specialization of dentistry.
Hansen Dentistry is a dentist office in Apex, NC, serving residents of Apex, Cary, and Morrisville. To schedule an appointment with our office, please click here.