A 2010 Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa; on average 55 percent of Africans believe in witchcraft.
Though graves are the most common source of bones, organs and limbs, in the past few years albino children and adults in Africa have been attacked and killed for their body parts. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti.
Muti hunting was featured in the 2009 South African science-fiction film "District 9," in which the hero's body parts were sought after by a local warlord who believed that the limbs would give him magical powers. Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their living victims. Many of the albinos were beheaded, their heads carefully collected and preserved as gruesome good luck charms or for use in rituals.
Throughout most of history, medical knowledge of anatomy was poor and indirect, partly because of fear and taboos against cutting open corpses. The Renaissance brought an emphasis on practical, real-world knowledge, which necessarily meant examining and cutting up the dead.
In Europe, the rise of early medical centers created a strong demand for dead bodies; a few cadavers were made available by royal decree, usually the bodies of condemned criminals. In the 1700s, in fact, dissection was a punishment for serious crimes.
By 1720, theft from graveyards was common in London, England, and grave robbers (or "resurrection men," as they were known) were making a profit digging up bodies and selling them to anatomists and doctors. Among the most infamous of these criminals were Irish grave robbers and murderers Brendan Burke and William Hare, who committed sixteen murders and sold the bodies to a well-known London anatomist in 1828.
By the 1900s most grave robbing in the West had ceased, though as the incidents in Benin demonstrate the practice lingers where belief in magic is common.