We leave copies of ourselves everywhere. With every touch, we constantly litter the world with imprints of the circular ridges that decorate our fingertips. While the size of the print may change, the character of the ridges does not. Fingerprints do not change after we die and the skin perishes. Under most conditions, human fingerprints can be preserved for thousands of years. In fact, fingerprints found on Egyptian mummies are still legible. The actual study of ancient fingerprints is what experts call “paleodermatoglyphics”. Uncovering ancient fingerprints can archeologists peer into our ancestral past, and get to know the humans who inhabited the earth centuries ago.
The family T’ang: ancient practices in China
Using fingerprints as a tool for identification is itself an ancient practice, dating back to the T’ang dynasty in China. In fact, the first mention of the fingerprinting system was in “domestic law”. Accordingly, when a man divorces his wife, he could signify his reasoning by imprinting his fingerprint (if he was unable to handwrite). This was a Japanese practice borrowed from the Chinese “Laws of Yung—Hui” (650-655A.D.). This shows that by the 7th century, the Chinese had already integrated the finger-print system. The Chinese term chin yin, literally means “finger seal”, appropriately named for the common practice of contractors signing legal documentations with the press of their fingertip.
Not just a pottery class: ceramics from the lost world
Most fingerprints are uncovered on ancient artifacts we often see tucked behind glass windows in museums. These historical objects are usually made of ceramic. From Neolithic times to now, ceramics form a massive portion of museum collections. Some of these ceramic artifacts were created as far back as 25,000 years ago (during the Upper Paleolithic period). Making ceramic material is a complex process, involving the expertise of a range of different craftsmen. It’s therefore possible to detect a variety of fingerprints from people involved in manufacturing ceramics centuries ago. After the craftsman dries and heats up an artifact, it hardens and becomes chemically stable. This way, any fingerprints on the surface can last for ages. Archeologists have uncovered fingerprints on the world’s most ancient ceramic artifacts.
Who’s who in the ancient world: a craftsman or a wealthy aristocrat?
An ancient fingerprint is a historical snapshot of our ancestral past. They allow archeologists to study whoever came in contact with the material. This is not only the person who created the piece but a slew of others involved in manufacturing it. The type of material gives a lot of information. Prints uncovered from a ceramic artifact, bronze burial rings or historical document, give specific clues into the life of the person. Was he a craftsman or part of the educated elite? For instance, bronze rings used to bury people, begin to naturally corrode. As a result, the buried person’s fingerprints become embedded within them. These fingerprints belong to people from a high social status and in cultures which practiced placing bronze rings in graves. The same is true of fingerprints found on written documents, as they represent the literate and educated class. Historically, the literate represented a very small minority of the demographic at the time.
Despite the usefulness of uncovering ancient fingerprints, many archeologists fail to document them. There is a misleading perception that fingerprints barely reside on ancient artifacts, so studying them is not scientifically viable. But as many historians have shown, ancient fingerprints are pervasive and can help unveil information about our ancestors that would otherwise remain a mystery.
Your Turn: Astonished to hear that fingerprinting didn’t just start with Galton? Do you know more about ancient fingerprinting that we didn’t feature here? Let us know in the comments — we’d love to hear from you.