Facebook Investigates Sales of Human Skulls in Private Groups

Facebook is investigating claims that human bones, including skulls the remains of children, are being advertised for sale in private groups.

An undercover stakeout of several communities trading in the policy-violating items was conducted by Live Science, which reported this week how it recently tracked remains as they were listed on the website over a period of 10 months.

It's not exactly a new phenomenon—with eBay and Facebook-owned Instagram both previously identified as avenues for human bone trading—but the probe suggests that it remains a lingering problem for Mark Zuckerberg's social network.

According to Live Science, there was a variety of remains advertised for sale, including belonging to fetuses, infants and children. In one private group, a buyer reportedly requested "children's skeletal pieces or organs," for an unknown purpose.

At least one seller, based in Washington state, listed a skull for $550 while admitting that it had originally been looted from catacombs in Sousse, Tunisia.

In one instance, a Facebook user claimed to be selling the mummified remains of a six-year-old child dated to the 1700s for 11,000 euros, or roughly $12,350. The vendor, who was not named, stressed that it was "not a grave robbery."

In another case, a person was selling the skull of a "young teenager" without wisdom teeth for $1,000, claiming it was sourced from a Philadelphia medical school.

According to Live Science, fetal remains were also found for sale, often preserved in jars of liquid. The investigation found a small fetus that appeared well-preserved had been advertised, listed for $2,350 and described as a "retired medical specimen."

Facebook policy states that commercial listings "may not promote the buying or selling of human body parts or fluids," including blood, urine, body parts, organs
human tissue or teeth. Hair extensions and wigs are permitted.

Based on images posted to the communities, the investigation indicated buyers were using the bones for display purposes in their homes, sometimes being modified.

A Facebook PR representative told Newsweek it was being investigated.

In a joint statement, Ryan Seidemann and Christine Halling of the Office of Louisiana's Attorney General's Civil Division, told Live Science: "The legal and ethical implications are clear in our opinion: There is no need or justification for any private individual to own any human remains, whether they are the remains of adults or children."

Experts say U.S. laws are inconsistent when it comes to the sale of human bones, with social media trading of such items in recent years thriving as a result.

Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, who specializes in funeral and cemetery law, told Vice in 2018 regulations are vague because it doesn't neatly fit the definitions of "people or property" in the U.S. legal system.

In 2016, eBay updated its policies on the trading of human remains after an academic study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found 454 human skulls were up for sale on the auction website over a seven month period between 2012 and 2013.

"Going forward, all such items will be prohibited from being bought or sold on eBay," a spokesperson for the platform told BuzzFeed at the time.

After trading was outlawed across eBay, vendors and collectors in the niche community moved to Instagram, according to researchers cited by Wired last year.

Damien Huffer and Shawn Graham, archaeologists who have studied the marketplaces in-depth, told the publication that sales of human remains on Instagram had totaled at least $57,000 in 2016, up from roughly $5,200 just three years prior.

They said Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee have laws limiting "sale and possession" of remains but enforcement is not always carried through. BuzzFeed reported that 38 U.S. states have laws against buying human remains "to some extent."

"While the... remains market existed before Instagram, it has enabled so many more people to connect with each other and indulge in this obsession," Huffer told Wired. "It has transformed what was a fringe practice into a viable, global free for all."

Human Skull
View of a human skull, that was found during a search operation by experts of General Prosecutor's Office of the state of Chihuahua in the Juarez Valley, near Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on August 18, 2018 HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty