Human remains are being bought and sold online despite efforts to shut down the illegal trade, according to Australian researchers tracking the movement of skulls and skeletons.
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers may find some aspects of this article distressing.
The research team has spent the past five years assembling a database of the thousands of sets of Aboriginal human remains still stored in museums and private collections across the world.
Now, they have secured $750,000 in funding from the Australian Research Council to take a deep-dive into the murky world of the commercial trade in human remains.
Gooniyandi and Gija man Neil Carter, who has come out of retirement to work on the project, said it was appalling to think that people were still profiting from the sale of bones and hair samples.
“It’s unbelievable that this is still going on,” he said.
“It’s something that’s been kept quiet, but it should be made public so people know what’s been happening to our people since colonisation.
“I am glad we will be putting a spotlight on these thieves that took away our ancestral remains and got paid — for our dignity, and our healing, and for reconciliation.”
A ‘very disturbing’ trade
The trade in human remains is thought to have peaked in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the bones of Indigenous people globally were sought after by scientists and cashed-up collectors.
It was during this time that the body parts of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were removed from Australia and ended up in in institutions such as the British Museum, where some remain.
But there is evidence the trade has continued into the internet era despite a patchwork of laws designed to stamp out the selling of body parts.
The buying and selling of bones will be the focus of a three-year research project funded by the Australian Research Council.
Alyawarr man Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker, from the Australian National University, said the commercial side of the trade was not well understood.
“We know that ancestral remains ended up overseas largely to quench the thirst of European institutions in terms of their anthropological and teaching collections,” he said.
“So you come across very disturbing cases of the remains of Aboriginal people being sent overseas against the wishes of their families — some passed away of natural causes, but of course quite a few passed away due to frontier conflicts.
“And because of this thirst for knowledge about the new colonies, this then became a trade.”
Brisk trade in human remains
Early research by the team has shown body parts were regularly advertised for sale in Australia in the first half of the 20th century.
In 1905, the Queensland press described the sale of more than 1,000 Aboriginal artefacts, including six skulls, in admiring terms:
“[The] collection had been the fruit of 35 years’ labour, and many specimens are now unprocurable. The opportunity for making such another collection has passed away for the reason that the Australian aborigines are dying out fast.”
By 1935, an Adelaide auction house was advertising a collection of 90 human remains from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Melanesia for sale.
The sellers were hoping to fetch £300 for the skulls and mandibles.
A Canberra institution called the Australian Institution of Anatomy ended up buying 60 of the items. It is not known what happened to the remaining 30.
Internet fuels bone trade
Most disturbingly, the sales have continued into the digital age.
Dr Ormond-Parker said there was evidence of body parts continuing to be advertised on websites, such as eBay, despite companies doing their best to shut down the trade.
“Part of this project will be looking at the trade since the 1950s and in particular the last 10 years, because with the advent of the internet and eBay we sometimes see remains come up for sale,” he said.
“I’m talking globally, but you may come across an individual from Australia that’s going to be traded.”
Skeletons stored in shipping container
The work will build on the five-year Return, Reconcile, Renew (RRR) project, which has created detailed databases of the Indigenous remains still to be repatriated.
It is estimated 2,000 sets of human remains continue to languish in collections in Australia, and a similar number is still overseas.
The RRR project has shed light on the hurdles faced by Aboriginal communities hoping to rebury ancestral remains, including uncooperative overseas institutions, the cost of transport and the lack of a national “keeping place” where unprovenanced Indigenous remains can be safely stored.
The database created for the Kimberley region reveals that 34 sets of human remains have been reburied in recent years, but another 141 are still to be returned.
And almost 70 partial skeletons sit in makeshift storage facilities within the Kimberley, including a converted shipping container.
The federal government has committed to building a National Keeping Place in Canberra, where repatriated remains of uncertain origin can be stored.