A Brief History of Fingerprinting
Fingerprinting is probably the most essential component of the dynamic field of forensic science. Indeed, fingerprinting is the only “science” developed strictly for forensic use. Its adaptation for the academic realm has only come about in the past few decades.
Whilst human interest in the ridges and furrows of the skin has existed for thousands of years, it is only since the late 1800’s that investigators recognised their use as a means of identification. Fingerprints occur on documents from ancient Babylonia and on clay sealings from ancient China. In fact, so many fingerprints can be found in the archaeological record that an academic by the name of Harold Cummins was asked to report to the Smithsonian Institute in 1941. The Smithsonian wanted to know if ancient peoples had any understanding of the uniqueness of fingerprints. After examining a wide range of material, Cummins concluded no. He believed that the fingerprint was meant as a mark but not as one that could be traced to its specific maker. He likened the use of fingerprints to that of an illiterate person signing a document with an “X.” The mark is meant to validate the document but can not be traced to the individual.
As mentioned earlier, the real history of fingerprints begins in the 19th century and lies primarily with the work of Sir Francis Galton. His book, published in 1892, set the frame work for all future developments in the field. However, Galton was not the first to identify the usefulness of fingerprints for criminal investigations. Over a decade prior to Galton’s book, Dr. Henry Faulds published a study on the subject in the journal Nature. He contacted the Metropolitan Police in London and offered his research only to be summarily dismissed.
The field of fingerprinting continues to evolve to this day. Researchers and law enforcement strive to develop better collection and storage techniques. The use of DNA from fingerprints is a new field requiring new techniques and technologies. And recently, the validity of fingerprints as a means of unique identification has been challenged in the courts. Finally, academics around the world are now turning their attention to all those fingerprints from antiquity. What can they tell use about the people who left them and the objects on which they are found? Fingerprinting is an exciting and varied field incorporating law enforcement, criminal justice, chemistry, biology, human evolution, history, politics, archaeology, biotechnology, and more!
To learn more about the history of fingerprinting and fingerprint technology, here are some useful websites:
Wikipedia’s summary of fingerprint history
A very comprehensive timeline
Site dedicated to fingerprints and fingerprinting
The International Association for Identification the professional body for fingerprint experts
Journal of Ancient Fingerprints
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