Tracing the “Footprints” Of Biometrics Through Time!

The use of biometrics for identification might date back to the time man appeared on earth. Today, we trace the footprints of this science across history, and see how it has evolved over time. But before delving any further, it is important to understand what biometrics is.Dogs bark. Felines spray. Ever wondered how to animals recognise members of their own species? They use a combination of characteristics such as scent, appearance and calls. We all know that we humans have unique fingerprints. But in fact, it’s not just fingerprints; our identities can be authenticated using a variety of distinctive biological characteristics. This is precisely what biometric technology does! It measures these physical attributes to verify a person’s identity. The term has been derived from the words, ‘bio’ and ‘metrics’, meaning ‘life’ & ‘to measure’, respectively.

Since human existence, man has used biological features such as facial appearance and voice for recognition. I was surprised when I learnt that paintings by prehistoric man (Aurignacian man) in a 32,000 year-old cave (known as ‘Chauvet’), in France, have been found to be ‘signed’ with hand prints! Let me add, these are the oldest cave paintings known to mankind! 500 B.C. Babylonian clay tablets (Babylon was the most famous and significant city in ancient Mesopotamia. It is located in present day Iraq.) show records of business transactions, marked with fingerprints! Just like the images in Chauvet cave, pottery from Babylon has also been found bearing fingerprints. Though in this case, they seem to have been left unintentionally by the potters, in the process of work. Some times, they were used for decoration. 221-206 B.C. Qin dynasty records (It lasted 15 years, but is the most significant dynasty in ancient China history.) reveal incredible details about handprints and footprints being collected as pieces of evidence for crime scene investigation! One of the most famous Portuguese historians, João de Barros (1496 – 1570), noted children’s palm prints and footprints being used in 14th century China for identification.

French police officer and biometrics researcher Alphonse Bertillon (1853 – 1914) probably did more for the science of biometrics than anyone else in history. In 1870, he developed a method of identification, using physical measurements. In his words, “Every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth”.Today of course, about 150 years later, sophisticated biometric technology is used in several areas. It continues to be used in law enforcement areas and for averting terror attacks, in a way Bertillon would have never imagined!

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