Professor Shawn Graham was recently interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen about the online sales of human remains. A short excerpt is included below with the full article by Joanna Laucius entitled “Carleton prof harnesses machine learning to explore the bone trade netherworld” can be viewed online.

If someone in the world is willing to buy something, there’s a market for it online — even human remains like skulls and bones.

Carleton University’s Shawn Graham is an archaeologist as well as a professor in the relatively new area of study known as the “digital humanities” — using computers to answer questions about literature, history and other disciplines that focus on society and culture.

So, when Graham heard bone expert Damien Huffer talk about the shadowy online world of buying and selling human remains at a conference, he started thinking about how machine learning and neural networks could be used to learn more about this underworld.

The bone trade is nothing new — human remains have been sold as curiosities for centuries. Remains for sale online range from former anatomical teaching skeletons to mummies, skulls and even “wet” specimens, such as preserved brain slices and fetuses. Some remains have been in circulation for decades and are sold as being from an old medical or museum collection. But social media has made it possible to reach out to a vast audience of potential buyers, Graham said.

“It was possible in the past to buy a skull in an oddities shop. But, with social media, it has become a worldwide market.”

Selling illicit cultural property is believed to be the third-most profitable black market industry after narcotics and weapons. The sale of human remains is a niche market in the sale of antiquities, much like the trade in ancient pottery or coins, Graham said.