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Human Skulls Are Being Sold Online, But Is It Legal?

In 2011, an archaeologist in the United Kingdom picked out one of the many human skulls sitting on his shelf. The 17th-century European male was missing most of his teeth and mandible, but the skull was clean and generally in decent condition. The archaeologist photographed it, described it, and listed it on eBay.

At the time, the popular online auction site allowed anyone to trade in human bones as long as the remains were clean, articulated, and for medical purposes. The 17th-century skull was neither articulated nor did it go to a doctor, but it did fetch the archaeologist $750, minus the usual fees from eBay and PayPal.

This was the skull that started Zane Wylie’s obsession. Wylie was studying facial expressions, and he wanted an authentic skull to study how muscles attached to the bone.

“I looked online to see if I could get a real skull, and to my surprise, there were several dozen available,” says Wylie, who asked to go by the pseudonym he now uses for business purposes.

He named his acquisition “Yorick,” the first of many skulls he’d eventually purchase online. By late 2011, he had started carving designs into them and selling them on his website and at conferences, eventually making a living primarily through his boney art.

Wylie was hardly alone: Communities of people who collect oddities and bones were well aware of how easy it was to list something on eBay when no one had to prove provenance or medical affiliation.

But now, academic and legal professionals are starting to take notice.

On July 4, an analysis published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences described how, over the course of just seven months, sellers listed 454 human skulls on eBay, with an average opening bid of around $650. The authors, Christine Halling and Ryan Seidemann with the Louisiana Department of Justice, also noted the trade of human skulls on other websites like Yahoo! and Facebook.

Just four days after the study was published, eBay banned trade in human remains except head hair, which is commonly used to make wigs and Victorian-style art. Sellers’ items were pulled from the site, and any listing fees they had paid were refunded. (Find out more about Victorian-era jewelry made from human hair.)

The move may signal a drastic rethink of what is currently a largely legal trade in human bones.

The official reasoning from eBay for the policy change was: “The sale of humans and human remains is prohibited by law, and sellers can't list them on eBay.”

Perhaps shockingly, that’s not exactly true, but the move may signal a drastic rethink of what is currently a largely legal trade in human bones.

In addition to the eBay decision, the state of Louisiana banned trade and even ownership of almost all human remains shortly after the study appeared. Bone traders started to get nervous. Some deleted their Instagram accounts featuring human remains. Some canceled their interviews with National Geographic. The Bone Room, a store selling bones of all types, sent a note in their August newsletter saying that they consider the eBay ban worrisome.

“I suspect a law will be passed, and I will no longer be able to sell human bones to artists, cadaver dog trainers, or people who just want to own a femur or a skull,” the store owner said in the newsletter.

Historical Heads

Right now, most human skulls in the general U.S. market come from antique medical skeletons.

In the 1700s, medical schools had to provide skeletons for their students, and the supply largely came from India. Hindered by changing laws in 1832 that put an end to unchecked grave robbing in the U.K., British doctors pressured Indian people who dealt with the disposal of human remains to sell the bones instead.

Soon, India had a thriving bone industry that supplied much of the Western world with medical specimens. The history, the opportunity for entrepreneurship, and the fact that many families were too poor to cremate their loved ones helped India dominate the human bone niche.

But in 1985, one dealer was caught selling more than 1,500 child skeletons of unknown origin. India promptly banned exporting human remains over concern that people were being murdered for them. For a while, China took over India’s role as global bone merchant, but they also banned exports in 2008.

the side of a carved skull

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a human skull with carvings in it

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Head of the Templars

Wylie calls this piece his Jacques de Molay tribute skull. Molay was the last known grand master of the Knights Templar. He was among the Templars arrested for heresy in France on October 13, 1307, which is often erroneously tied to Friday the 13th becoming an unlucky date.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Over time, as various medical schools closed or downsized, or as professors sold off their collections at estate sales, the bones changed hands, and some ended up on the oddities market.

Modern Donors

People in the medical world and related fields can still get new human skulls from U.S. donors. That’s because not all bodies donated for non-transplant anatomical science are studied whole. A doctor might teach her medical students elbow surgery using a dead person’s arm, a chiropractor might want a cleaned spine, and a retailer might take the head for cleaning and sale. (Find out how modern body donation is saving lives.)

Skulls Unlimited is the only company in the U.S. that is legally cleaning human heads that come straight from donors. When they receive a donor head, they cut off as much meat as they can, and remove the brains with a special tool. Then the cleaning crew dries the skulls for a few days before putting them in a colony of dermestid beetles, which will eat off the rest of the fleshy bits.

The company will only sell donor skulls to bona fide doctors, nurses, dentists, anthropologists, and people with valid scientific or medical reasons to have them. However, they sell antique skulls to anyone who wants them.

In addition to Skulls Unlimited and The Bone Room,, in Canada, and countless brick-and-mortar stores across the U.S. also specialize in selling bones of various species, including humans. You can find human remains for sale on private websites like Wylie’s, plus on some big online platforms like Facebook. (Facebook declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Law and Order

For now, these bone collectors don’t legally need any credentials to buy and sell human skulls that are already on the market. And in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting trade and ownership of human remains other than those from Native Americans.

In 1985, India banned exporting human remains over concern that people were being murdered for them.

Many collectors erroneously believe that only three states—New York, Georgia, and Tennessee—ban trade in human remains across state lines, based on a post on The Bone Room’s website and reiterated in their August newsletter.

In reality, the laws are lacking in some states, unenforced in others, and nearly impossible to fully comprehend by buyers, sellers, or site administrators.

Seidemann, who is an attorney at the Louisiana Department of Justice, agrees that the laws are too protean and complicated for sellers to keep track of. “It’s a moving target,” he says. There is no comprehensive online resource to determine the legality of trade in human remains on a state-by-state basis, and neither academics nor collectors (even the ones with lawyers) were able to cite the details of each state’s laws when asked by National Geographic.

the side of a carved human skull

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a carved human skull

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Lamb of God

This piece is called the 7-Horned Lamb of God skull. According to Wylie, the carving was inspired by his interest in biblical languages, and it features depictions of the apostles along with text in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

However, even if human bones are technically legal to own and trade, there is a chance that some remains were grave-robbed, stolen, or misappropriated. The recent article by Halling and Seidemann noted that 56 of the 454 skulls they analyzed from eBay were probably not medical specimens, but ones of forensic or archaeological interest.

Brian Spatola, curator of the anatomical division of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, says that he has recovered several human skulls that had gone missing from academic collections just by watching eBay.

“In many of these instances, the materials were being sold by someone who claimed to have purchased them from an estate sale and professed to not know its history,” Spatola wrote in an e-mail statement on the topic. “Each of these was ultimately returned.”

Shroud of Secrecy

Ethical concerns are no less complicated. Damien Huffer, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, would like to see collectors stop trading in human remains, especially archaeological and ethnographic specimens, on social media. Ownership is “legal by default,” he says, “but that doesn’t wave away all the issues.”

a carved human skull with a medallion in the front

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a human skull with Mary carved into the top

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Holy Heart

Carvings on this skull pay tribute to Saint Clare de Montefalco, a Catholic abbess who lived in Italy in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Legend says that when she died in 1308, a small crucifix was found in her heart.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Huffer and his colleagues monitor website tags used by human remains traders on Instagram and other social media sites. He suggests that other users do the same and report people who sell remains to Facebook and Instagram. That way the companies are aware it is happening, even though right now neither of those websites has anything in their terms of service or community standards that restrict such sales.

Still, collectors usually have their own code of ethics, and most know what to avoid.

Skulls Unlimited co-owner Josh Villemarette is confident that the skulls they trade in come only from legitimate sources: “If it was a murder victim, there would definitely be ways for us to know that, just because the standard person’s not going to be able to get it clean,” says Villemarette, adding that he has never been offered something that he even suspects came directly from a murder victim.

“But there are times when you receive a photograph of a skull that someone’s wanting to sell that’s very clear that it’s been dug up,” he says.

a carved human skull with Chinese coins in the eyes

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“Something that’s intended for medical purpose, cleaned and sold into the scientific field, and refurbished ones—those are very clear that they’ve been intentionally cleaned for that purpose. Anything that’s been cleaned underground, there’s a very distinct look to them. That’s a red flag to us, and when we get those photographs, we straight away tell them that we’re not interested.”

And despite the recent dustup over eBay and Louisiana, Wylie says he’s not too concerned about his business. He figures that more people will instead buy directly from his website or from sellers at conventions, adding that anyone who wants to become art after they die can will their skull to him. (Read about other creative things to do with a dead body.)

So at least for now, he and other bone traders continue to sell online, just with a little more secrecy and care than they had before.

“Somebody who buys skulls and somebody who sells skulls, we don’t like to trade names,” says Wylie. “All it takes is for somebody to write an article, and our business could be over.”

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The human bone trade is legal—and booming on Instagram

The human bone trade is as close as the phone in your pocket or the laptop on your desk. That’s because the sale, purchase, and trade of most human bones in the United States is largely legal. There are some stipulations. Native American remains are protected under Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and each state has different provisions about how human remains on the market may be obtained or carried over state lines, but, provided you have the cash, you can order a freshly cleaned human skull or an “antique” skeleton in minutes. There’s no federal regulation or oversight for such private sales. The online store for a Los Alamitos, California, shop simply called the Bone Room assures buyers, “it is perfectly legal to possess and sell human bones in the United States.” Click a link on the same page for human skulls and you’ll likely find listings like “#6043 India male,” a slightly damaged skull going for $1,800. The listing doesn’t provide any information on who this person was, how the skull was obtained, or even if it came to the United States before India’s 1985 export ban. And therein lies the troubling nature of the casual, open trade in human bones going on every day.

Bone gathering has become a subculture status symbol. Private collector Ryan Matthew Cohn boasts more than two hundred human skulls in his personal collection, no doubt adding to the required mystique for his duties as the host of the Science Channel show Oddities. Artist Zane Wylie has also made a name for himself by purchasing and artistically modifying real human skulls. People going for a Tim Burton–esque aesthetic or wanting to gain some goth cred can easily acquire and display human remains to set the appropriately macabre mood, with exotic, old, or unusual skeletons being the most desirable status symbols of all. Find and follow the right hashtags on social media and the Red Market is easy to navigate.

Secret life of bones Brian Switek human bone trade cover

Instagram, which more readily brings to mind carefully framed selfies and a flood of tattoo art, might not initially seem to be a likely hub for the human bone trade, but that’s changed in recent years. Part of it’s because other popular websites and apps have tried to ban the sale of human remains. The craft‑centric Etsy disallowed the sale of human bones in 2012. Similarly, eBay, which was much more permissive, put a ban on all human body parts except hair in 2016. In this case it wasn’t so much out of a newfound sense of virtue as a scientific report tracking the auction site’s market for human skulls. Christine Halling and Ryan Seidemann of the Louisiana Department of Justice tracked the sale of 454 human skulls on the site, noting that fifty‑six of those were “of forensic or archaeological interest” and shouldn’t have been listed for sale. This came as no surprise—in 2009 Seidemann and colleagues reported on a Native American skull that had been offered on eBay and subsequently seized by the State of Louisiana—but the conclusions of the new paper were stark enough that eBay changed their store policy within a week and barred the sale of human bones. So the market moved to Instagram, where experts are tracking how bones are shuffled around.

Archaeologists such as Damien Huffer track how human remains are marketed and sold over people’s smartphones, and, with colleague Shawn Graham, he dug into the mechanics of the trade in a 2017 paper called “The Insta‑Dead: The Rhetoric of the Human Remains Trade on Instagram.” As it turned out, the language used to promote and purchase skeletons is very familiar. The general vibe is that of nineteenth‑century archaeology and anthropology, putting the acquisition of specimens above the recognition of those pieces as people. “In the same way those early collecting practices did damage and violence to communities from which the dead were collected,” Huffer and Graham write, “the emergence of social media platforms that facilitate collector communities seems to be replaying that history.” The bones of these people are effectively stripped of their humanity—with little to no information about who they were, where they came from, or how the remains were obtained in the first place—to become, simply, things. Hand bones become the basis for artsy necklaces and a skull under glass is a coffee table centerpiece. It’s another way that people are turned into objects, and it seeps into the language of the science, too. “The ability to sell, display or trade human remains via social media and online distribution lists has led to their being treated as consumer products for a collector’s market,” Huffer and Graham write, “rather than objects of archaeological, ethnographic or anatomical value.”

As it stands now, the bone trade in the United States is largely legal. But not all of it is so irresponsible. One particular purveyor—Skulls Unlimited International—gets its fresh skulls from donors, and these are sold to doctors or researchers with a particular need for real remains. But there’s still an untold number of bones and skeletons of unknown origin being swapped on Instagram—and according to Huffer and Graham, even Etsy, despite the ban—because they are labeled as antique or historic. These are older, broken, stained remains that are often said to come from estate sales or deaccessioned medical school collections. They are one step removed from today’s active bone market, and perhaps purchasers feel absolved by this. But a skull said to have come from an old medical school collection is still likely to have been originally obtained in an unethical way. While major bone dealers claim they can spot bones that have been robbed from graves or are otherwise sketchy, there’s no such filter on Instagram. Regulatory bodies—whether it’s social media sites or even law enforcement agencies—have been slow to regulate these sales.

The market continues to grow. In their study, Huffer and Graham tracked attempted sales of human bones on Instagram between 2013 and 2016. While there were only three relevant posts in 2013—asking prices totaling $5,200—there were 77 in 2016, with asking prices coming to a total of about $57,000. For the most part, these aren’t wealthy rarities dealers. They’re oddities collectors, artists, and part‑time dealers who buy and trade on the small scale, using tags like #trophyskulls and #realbone to market their offerings. The trade makes me shudder. I wouldn’t mind winding up as a skeleton in a museum cabinet after I die, teaching even after death, but the thought of being bought and sold as a decoration, appraised to a certain value, winnowed down to nothing more than an object of curiosity gathering dust, makes my living flesh crawl. Treating human bones as a curio divorces you from history and context. Bone, after all, is the most lasting part of ourselves, able to speak to succeeding generations even after our voices have gone silent.

From Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek with permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Brian Switek, 2019.


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