Posted: July 20th, 2016 | By: Conor Gearin
Professor Tanya Marsh was featured in the New Scientist article, “Hundreds of mystery human skulls sold on eBay for up to $5500,” regarding eBay’s policy on the sale of human body parts in light of the website’s recent listings of 454 skulls. The article, published by Conor Gearin on July 12, 2016, follows.
A morbid market. Staffers at the Louisiana Department of Justice in Baton Rouge tracked the sale of human skulls on eBay for seven months. During that period, 237 people listed 454 skulls for sale, with opening bids ranging from one cent to $5500.
Until last week, eBay’s official policy as stated on its website was that it doesn’t allow the sale of human remains, with two exceptions – “items containing human scalp hair, and skulls and skeletons intended for medical use”. However, sellers could say that skulls were for medical use without proving it, and still sell them as curiosities, says Tanya Marsh at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Following the study’s publication, eBay recently changed its policy to ban sales of all human body parts except hair.
On average, the opening bids were about $650. Skulls described as pathological – coming from someone with a disease – went for similar prices as other skulls. Specimens cleaned and articulated for teaching started at about $50 more, though.
Of the listings which included the seller’s location, most came from the US. California led the pack, with over 50 sales. Missouri came in second with over 30. Ninety-six skulls came from a variety of international locations.
Most likely, not all the skulls were donated to science – some are probably archaeological specimens or from forensic investigations, according to the study.
Marsh says that many skulls could have originated from India and China. This issue attracted attention when exhibitions of plasticised bodies were criticised for using bodies that could have belonged to Chinese prisoners.
Though China and India have since banned the export of human remains, Marsh suspects that many imported skeletons could stay on the US market. “We should have strong moral problems with that,” she says. “They don’t say how long the skeletons have been skeletons. You can’t tell just by looking at them. It’s possible that some of them are disinterred human remains.”
While there’s a US law banning the sale of Native American remains, there is no other federal regulation on the sale of human skulls online, meaning that it’s up to states to keep watch. According to the Louisiana Department of Justice researchers, 38 states have laws prohibiting the sale of human remains, but most do little to enforce those laws.
“The laws are all over the place,” says Marsh. By her count, only three states clearly prohibit the sale of human remains: New York, Georgia and Tennessee. She thinks the state laws should be clearer but notes that there’s little interest in changing or enforcing the laws.
Making the laws stricter could also have unintended consequences. The study suggested that if eBay removed skull listings from its website, the trade would just move to less visible locations on the web, making it harder to trace where the skulls came from and whose descendants should be allowed to dispose of the remains.
“I do see that there are human dignity issues in traffic in human body parts, and that there are all kinds of reasons why we wouldn’t want that to happen,” says Annemarie Bridy at the University of Idaho in Moscow. “But in a world of limited law enforcement resources, I think I would try to focus mine on crimes that can [cause] harms to living people.”
Marsh says that the legal situation allows for some unusual things to be sold. “I found on eBay a set of ribs with a ‘Buy it Now’ price of $14.50,” she says. “There was something about that that struck me as really strange and disturbing. I was tempted to buy it just to go bury it in my backyard or something.”