When you scroll Instagram, you expect to see pictures of beautiful things: people on the beach, breathtaking vistas, funny moments with people’s pets. You don’t expect to see a human skull, boiling in a pot, being degreased in preparation for sale, or a skull being pulled out of the earth from somewhere along the Russian Eastern Front during the Second World War, to be offered for sale with clods of earth still on it. You don’t expect to see a lamp shade made out of human scapulae. You don’t expect to see a video of a grave being opened and a corpse being removed, or images of mummified hands or faces, and fetuses in jars. You wouldn’t think Instagram would be a venue for such things, but it is.
This is what Damien Huffer and I see on a daily basis as we work to map out the contours of the human remains trade on social media. We approach this phenomenon through our combined expertise in digital archaeology, osteoarchaeology, and data science. Several years ago, we encountered human remains being sold on sites such as eBay, among other kinds of archaeological artefacts. Alarmed, we started trying to understand where these human remains were coming from, and why people were trafficking dead bodies. Since then, we’ve encountered hundreds of people, selling tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of human remains across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Etsy, and other online sites. Explaining the increasing proliferation of the trade is easy enough: there’s a lot of money to be had.
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Many of the folks who collect or sell human remains will be quick to say, “This is all legal!” In truth, the answer is far more complex. In the narrow sense that there is no federal United States law explicitly prohibiting the ownership of human remains, it is true. However, there are a plethora of laws at state and local levels that circle around the idea of maintaining the dignity of the dead. In Canada, where our academic work on this project is based, there is a federal statute in the Criminal Code of Canada, section 182, which does make it an offence to offer an indignity to a dead body. And there is no dignity in what these traders are doing.
When these stories reach the wider media, there is too much focus on the legality of “ownership.” There are a myriad other concerns around buying and selling human remains that intersect with other kinds of national or international legislation: import, export, cultural property law, false advertising, receiving stolen goods, money laundering, to name a few. These same concerns apply to the antiquities trade in general, which is not separate from the human remains trade, even if sellers pretend it is.
People who buy and sell human remains will often point to the licit trade in bodies from India and China that provided many bodies to medical schools over the years until finally being outlawed, stating that the remains they are selling “are from a former medical collection.” Much as with antiquities or Indigenous cultural heritage (often glibly referred to as “ethnographica” or “tribal art”), claims that something comes “from an old collection” are often meaningless or patently false. Even if there are indications that a set of human remains once passed through one of the “supply companies” that provided osteology to medical students pre-1980s, the truth of the matter is, no bodies that are bought and sold were originally ethically obtained. Likely no one dies saying, “cut my body up for parts so that people can sell me on Instagram.” You have to remember what Instagram (and, let’s be honest, most social media) is for: it is spectacle; it is show; it is influence.
Recently, a person who buys and sells human remains in New York state — where it is illegal to own human remains (NY Public Health Law 4217) displayed his collection of human spines, hanging from racks. The walls were covered in human vertebral columns. His Tiktok video was, for him, a success. All attention is good attention in this case. No matter how many outraged responses the video generated, the amount of advertising dollars this spectacle created for him is no doubt huge.
Much, but not all, of the human remains trade, both now and in the past, is the powerful collecting the powerless. This has often meant trafficking in the bodies of Brown, Black, and Indigenous people. Sometimes these remains were stolen from graves or sacred places — the bones of the indigent, the racialized, the people treated as less-than-human. They were collected from the late 19th century to the late 20th century to further the scientific racism that was an unfortunate aspect of early anthropology, to create comparative collections in museums, and to fill medical schools. They were offered precious little dignity in life, and even less in death.
We shouldn’t need a law explicitly declaring “No one can own dead people,” though perhaps that would help. We need enforcement of the laws that we do have (especially in “demand” countries). We need to see that the same channels, the same platforms that supercharge connectivity between sellers and buyers — automatically! — do this for other kinds of illicit materials, from guns to drugs to trafficking (living) humans. And sometimes, a vendor can monetize the spectacle through ad revenue, without otherwise selling anything physical at all. As founding members of the Alliance for Countering Crime Online, we believe that we need to regulate the ways these platforms are being used for commerce, of all kinds.
Until that happens, don’t buy human remains. Don’t take the vendor at their word. Don’t write breathless “Isn’t-this-cool” coverage of someone’s collection. Starve the spectacle; turn your attention elsewhere. Return some measure of dignity to these ancestors by not participating in their dehumanization.