What Is the History of Fingerprinting?

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According to the U.S. Marshals Service, one of the earliest uses of fingerprinting for purposes of identification dates to ancient Babylon, about 4,300 years ago, when merchants used fingerprints on clay tablets to finalize business transactions. The first use of fingerprints for forensic purposes in police investigations dates to 1892, when Juan Vucetich, an Argentine police official, used fingerprints to identify a criminal for the first time.

Ancient cultures in China, Persia, Greece, Egypt and Rome used fingerprints to establish identity for many purposes, including as makers’ marks on pottery, as decorations, to sign business contracts and to make loans between specific individuals. They did not use fingerprints to identify an unknown individual in the general population. Legal records show that during the Qin dynasty, which lasted from 221 to 206 B.C., the Chinese gathered hand prints, foot prints and fingerprints as evidence at a crime scene. Over the next several centuries, scientists and other researchers studied fingerprints for purposes of developing a taxonomy of types and patterns. The data were useful in many disciplines and proved to investigators that fingerprints were unique and could be used to establish identity to a certainty. Sir Francis Galton is credited with identifying characteristics of fingerprints that are still used by criminal investigators as of 2014. Forensic use of fingerprints spread rapidly during the 20th century, and by 1971 the FBI had 200 million fingerprint cards on file. These became the database for the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.