Our setting is a rural Chinese village. A man is found stabbed and hacked to death. Local investigators perform a series of experiments with an animal carcass looking at the type of wounds caused by different shaped blades and determine that the man had been killed with a sickle. The magistrate calls all of the owners of a sickle together. The ten or so suspects all deny murder. The sickles are examined, all are clean with nothing to give away being a murder weapon. Most in the village believe the crime won’t be solved. The magistrate then orders all of the suspects to stand in a field and place their sickle on the ground before stepping back. They all stand and wait in the hot afternoon sun. It’s an unusual sight. At first nothing happens. Eventually a metallic green fly lands on one of the sickles. It’s joined by another. And another. And another. The sickle’s owner starts to look very nervous as more and more flies land on his sickle and ignore everyone else’s. The magistrate smiles. He knows that the murderer would clean his weapon. But there would be tiny fragments of blood, bone and flesh invisible to the human eye but not beyond a fly’s sense of smell. The owner of the sickle breaks down and confesses. He’s arrested and taken away.
I think it’s safe to say that we love forensic science dramas. They’re all of a type: low lit metallic labs, ultraviolet lights, an array of brilliant yet troubled scientists and detectives dredging the depths of human depravity. Forensic science is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system, a vital weapon in fighting crime. Yet the tale of the flies and the sickle didn’t take place in 2019. It didn’t even take place this century. It was 1235 CE.
This account, the first recorded example of what we would now call forensic entomology, was recorded in Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified a Chinese book written in 1247 by Song Ci, the world’s first forensic scientist. This is his story.
Song Ci was born in 1186 in southeast China. He was born in a period of China’s history called the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). This period saw a number of political and administrative reforms including developing the justice system to create the post of sheriff. Sheriffs were employed to investigate crime, determine the cause of death and to interrogate and prosecute subjects. With this…