Trafficking in Human Skeletal Remains: An Historical Perspective

Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperConference paperpeer-review


Considerations regarding the long tradition of the human activity of collecting curiosities must also include a related but distinct category, human skeletal remains. During the 19th century the appropriation of the colonised peoples' sacred relics and cultural heritage was a legitimate activity, including the deliberate collection of human skulls as war trophies and the harvesting of skeletal remains to sell to the European and American medical professions and other scientific and teaching institutions. Since the mid-20th century, in particular, with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the lawful practices of collecting and trading in cultural heritage, including human skeletal remains, have in certain circumstances been made a criminal offence. International treaties, such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, require State Parties to regulate all commercial trade in cultural relics and religious icons. Despite legislative reform at both the domestic and international levels, the trade in cultural relics, including historic bones, continues. In addition, due to advances in marine technology, the human activity of collecting cultural materials now extends to the underwater environment. This paper looks at the historical practice of collecting human body parts, and in particular, the unique legal and ethical issues that arise when human skeletal remains are discovered in the marine environment. The sunken 'Ghost Fleet' of Chuuk Lagoon located in the Federated States of Micronesia serves as a case study to illustrate legal, ethical and law enforcement issues involved in protecting underwater cultural heritage. In addition, consideration is given to how contemporary International Law has responded to the bone trade. The repatriation of human bone collections and the criminalising of the former lawful activity of historic shipwreck salvage are two significant international law reform initiatives designed to reduce the trade in human skeletal remains.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFSCR 2014
Place of PublicationSingapore
PublisherGlobal Science and Technology Forum
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventAnnual International Conference Forensic Sciences and Criminalistic Research (FSCR) - Singapore, Singapore
Duration: 24 Nov 201425 Nov 2014


ConferenceAnnual International Conference Forensic Sciences and Criminalistic Research (FSCR)


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