This is a ScIU guest post by Krystiana Krupa, a Ph.D. candidate in IU’s Department of Anthropology and Research Associate for IU NAGPRA, and Molly Mesner Bleyhl, a Ph.D. student in IU’s Department of Anthropology and Graduate Assistant for IU NAGPRA
It seems that once a deceased person is skeletonized, our society overall tends to lose some of the respect that we hold for the dead. Skeletons are treated differently than recently deceased individuals that are still recognizable. However, it is critical that we remember that dead people are people too, and deserve all of the same respect that we give to the living. We are appalled by the idea of human trafficking when it involves living people — why does our attitude seem to change when it comes to trafficking the dead and their belongings? This idea is so ingrained in our society that the law prohibiting the sale of Native American remains is categorized by the FBI under laws relating to art theft instead of human trafficking.
In the United States, there are no federal laws prohibiting the buying and selling of human remains unless they are from Native Americans or their ancestors. In other countries, including Canada, there are no laws prohibiting human remains trafficking of any kind. A simple Google search for “buying and selling human remains” reveals that the top hits direct users to places where human bones can be bought online. In addition to private shops and web pages, trafficking of human remains and archaeological artifacts is booming on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Buying and selling human remains on eBay was allowed until July 2016. The public obsession with artifacts and bodies from the past is evident in the huge online market for these materials.
One example of this that gained national media attention in 2017 was Hobby Lobby’s prosecution for the illegal acquisition and intended display of clay cuneiform tablets from Iraq. The online sales giant eBay did not prohibit buying and selling of human remains until a large-scale study in 2016 revealed that eBay was a hotspot for trafficking of these materials.
Social media is becoming an increasingly popular place to buy and sell artifacts and remains from other cultures as well. Searching “artifacts for sale” on Facebook turns up dozens of private and public groups focused on buying and selling prehistoric Native American artifacts, for example, including arrowheads and pottery among other objects. Some groups also claim to sell “authentic” human remains and artifacts made from human bone. Various Instagram accounts use the platform to sell similar objects.
We must treat deceased individuals as people. Social media sites (and laws relating to this in general!) should update their policies to reflect this and prohibit human trafficking in ALL forms, including selling the body parts of the dead, as well as trafficking of their cultural items. Please report posts or groups where you see this happening — it is the right and respectful thing to do.