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Annual Review 2015

From fossils to forensics

How studying ancient human footprints could help forensic scientists solve crime.

The Research

Analysis of the fossilised footprints left by our ancestors can tell us a lot about the people who made them. Using specialist optical laser scanners and computer software, researchers can create a three-dimensional image of footprints that can determine the size and weight of the track-maker, as well as how they moved. 

Now with the aid of a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Innovation Award, BU researchers are using the same technology and expertise to improve the use of footprint evidence in gathering criminal intelligence. The new software developed for collecting three-dimensional footwear evidence will improve on older methods, allowing for routine deployment of three-dimensional imaging at crime scenes. In turn, this will enable forensic scientists to provide more reliable evidence in court cases. 

As part of the research project, and in honour of NERC’s 50th anniversary, the team ran a Footprints on the Beach event where members of the public could donate their footprints to science. Collected footprint scans, along with other biometric data, was added to a database of human tracks and analysed in an attempt to establish the uniqueness of each person’s footprint. 

The Academic

Professor Matthew Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences

I’ve been studying fossil footprints for the last eight years including discovering the second oldest footprints in the world in Kenya. Since then I have done a huge amount of research, in the laboratory and in the field, to understand the process of footprint formation and how footprints record biomechanical information about the track-maker. Our current research attempts to translate this research into societal impact by adapting it for forensic science which we hope will improve the use of footprint evidence in criminal investigations.

The Student

Samantha Underhill, BSc (Hons) Forensic Science

Working as an Undergraduate Research Assistant (URA) has been an amazing experience. It has enabled me to work on current, world-class research during my first year, something I would not have achieved without the URA programme. It has shown me how diverse a career in research can be through completing a wide range of tasks. The role has provided me with vital experience that will not only look amazing on my CV, but has truly furthered my knowledge and skills.

The Impact

Jonathan Smith, National Forensic Specialist Advisor at the National Crime Agency

One of the greatest values in collecting footwear evidence is in using the data to look for linked offences locally and across police force boundaries. Also the intelligence value of a system that can capture scene marks and be used not only as matching evidence, but also as intelligence, particularly in linking low-grade offences with more serious offences would be invaluable. The project offers the opportunity to help make this possible and as such it is to be commended.