Chinese peasants ordered by the local inquest official to gather together with their sickles that hot day in 1225 little knew they would be remembered across the next seven centuries.
Authorities were investigating the murder of a man whose body was found by the roadside, slashed 10 times bearing wounds similar to those that could have been made by a sickle used to harvest rice.
The investigating official ordered the nearest neighbors to submit their sickles for examination.
More than 70 sickles were laid on the ground that hot day. Flies quickly gathered on one sickle. He would not confess. The investigator pointed out that the other sickles had no flies, that there were traces of blood on this man’s sickle that caused the flies to gather.
The owner then confessed, leaving the “bystanders speechless, sighing with admiration,” wrote Sun Tz’u, a judicial intendant in 12th century China, in his book “The Washing Away of Wrongs,” written about 1247 or 1248, according to most sources.
The work is recognized as the oldest book on forensic or legal medicine in any civilization and carries cheery chapter titles such as “When the head and trunk are in different places,” “Deaths by beating and choking passed off as suicide by hanging,” and “Holding inquests on bodies too decomposed to serve as evidence.”
Bodies were sometimes manipulated in ways to throw off investigators. There’s no fooling insects, though. Blowflies lay eggs on a body or carcass – sometimes within seconds of death – and the length or weight of a larva helps determine time since death or postmortem interval.
College of Agriculture and Natural Resources entomology Professor David Legg and laboratory assistant Judi Diamond present their forensic entomology course every other spring.
Students learn television shows like “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Bones” don’t accurately show viewers how the investigative process works.