Monday, January 07, 2008

Inside India's Underground Trade in Human Remains
A constable in a sweat-stained undershirt and checkered blue sarong lays a ragged cloth over a patch of mud. He jerks open the back door of a decrepit Indian-made Tata Sumo SUV — what passes for an evidence locker at this rustic police outpost in the Indian state of West Bengal. A hundred human skulls tumble out onto the cloth, making a hollow clatter as they fall to the ground. They've lost most of their teeth bouncing around the back of the truck. Bits of bone and enamel scatter like snowflakes around the growing pile.

Standing next to the truck, the ranking officer smiles and lets out a satisfied grunt. "Now you can see how big the bone business is here," he says. I crouch down and pick up a skull. It's lighter than I expected. I hold it up to my nose. It smells like fried chicken.

Before the authorities intercepted it, this cache was moving along a well-established pipeline for human skeletal remains. For 150 years, India's bone trade has followed a route from remote Indian villages to the world's most distinguished medical schools.

I link to this because in my days as an undergrad we had our own skeleton for human osteology labs. I believe those were probably from India and I recall our prof at the time (Ken Bennett, U. of Wisconsin) saying they were acquired from bodies "found floating in the Ganges". It's a tough situation. One would think that with over 4 billion people on the planet it would be easy to find enough skeletons from people who don't care what happens to them. But, death is one of those highly personal things. One might not mind being incinerated and scattered to the four winds, but be highly peeved if one were to be sliced and diced and stuck in a box in a lab.