Police and forensic experts are baffled by a sudden flood of human skulls sold on popular online auction site eBay for hundreds of dollars each.
Investigators in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have tracked more than 450 skulls listed by 237 sellers over the past seven months.
The mystery is where they come from, as worldwide no one has reported the loss of a large number of skulls.
The morbid trade had led to the online auction giant changing sales policy to forbid trafficking in human remains.
Until the inquiry revealed the grisly sales, eBay allowed the sale of bones that were destined for medical research.
The average opening bid for was $650 for a diseased skull, while cleaned skulls with articulated jaws commanded an average first sale price of at least $700.
The trade has baffled police, as the sales seemingly followed no pattern and the buyers are unconnected.
eBay list the location of sellers. Analysing the data showed 50 were based in California, 30 in Missouri and 96 from a mix of overseas locations.
Some were donated for medical study, while others may have come from archaeological digs.
Investigators suspect the rest are from disturbed burials in India and China, where the trade in human remains was only recently regulated.
“We should have strong moral problems with imported skeletons,” said a police spokesman in Louisiana. “They don’t say how long the skeletons have been skeletons. You can’t tell just by looking at them. It’s possible that some of them are disinterred human remains.”
eBay prohibits human remains
The issue has highlighted that the US has no federal laws dealing with the sale of human skulls.
Only 38 states have laws about selling human remains and none are tightly enforced, claim researchers.
Investigators also fear banning the sales on eBay just displaces the market to a darker web location where relatives cannot trace the skulls of their ancestors and are prevented from giving them a proper burial or cremation.
Skulls are not the only human remains for sale on the web. Some web sites offer all sorts of bones and even complete skeletons.
“We don’t allow humans, the human body, or any human body parts or products to be listed on eBay, with the exception of items containing human scalp hair, such as lockets or wigs,” said an eBay spokesman.