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Mystery of the severed skulls grips China

Richard Spencer / London Telegraph | April 6 2006

The grisly discovery of 121 human skulls, many with their tops sawn off, has puzzled Chinese police and caused a frenzy of speculation.

The skulls were found by a farmer in a forested ravine in a part of the poor north-western province of Gansu, which is inhabited by ethnic Tibetans.

Police have confirmed that the skulls are human and are of "recent origin", as suggested by the fact that some had skin and hair still attached.

But officials have refused to give further details, which has given rise to theories of their origin that range from medical experiments on brains to an attempt to cash in on a fashion for skullcap-shaped ashtrays.

A further twist came with a find in a landfill site in the same province of two arms belonging to a child believed to be aged between five and eight. The arms appeared to have been cooked with chilli and ginger.

According to local newspapers, the skulls were found on a river bank last week in plastic bags along with fur and bones. At first it was suggested they could have belonged to monkeys.

Police and forensic scientists have now ruled out any medical reason for cutting off the tops of the skulls, although they said this had clearly happened after death.

The South China Morning Post linked the finds to rumours of cannibalism in another part of China three years ago, which were firmly denied at the time.

But the Beijing News quoted a nameless local official saying that the skulls might be related to a trade in handicrafts.

The newspaper said imitation skullcaps were being sold as ashtrays in a well-known market in the capital, where a seller claimed that, lined with silver, "the real thing" commanded high prices from private buyers.

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