Creating a human exhibit – in modern zoos it looks like a somewhat boring cliché which may be funny only for newborns. However, it was a common practice in the era of colonisation when ‘primitive’ indigenous people were regarded as a part of the exotic fauna. It was pure racism, even in the 1950s. Although racism is still a living problem in the world, fortunately this idea is not acceptable, neither presentable in modern zoos. Let’s take a look at the history of human zoos.
During Antiquity and the Middle Ages expeditions collected strange living creatures, including the different people of far countries. The Greeks mentioned small people who always fought cranes – the pygmies. Small, giant or particularly hairy people played an important role in myths as magical creatures, so they were collected and used for cultic and ritual-orgiastic purposes. It is an interesting question whether the ancestors of modern humans did or did not meet other human species while conquering the world – for example the ‘hobbits’ in Flores (and some believe in meeting late Gigantopithecus blacki individuals as well in Southeast Asia).
Thus, it was difficult for the people of Antiquity to decide if these creatures were or were not humans. For example, when they first met the great apes, they considered them forest people. Hanno, the Carthaginian explorer was the first to bring news about gorillas – this name means ‘tribe of hairy women’. A relief on the famous black Assyrian obelisk – made during the reign of Shalmaneser III – depicts some captured apes with human faces.
The early zoos of Antiquity consisted of humans as well, both tribesmen of different races and weird individuals (for example albinos, dwarves and women and men with birth defects). During the Renaissance, the Medicis (especially the cardinal Ippolito de’Medici) developed the largest human collection in the menageries of Vatican – the greatest ’stars’ were the Tartars regarded as the descendants of Satan. Although originally the great supranational religions – Christianity and Islam –considered every believer to be equal, the prosperous slave market changed this idea in practice. According to the opponents (both Christians and Muslims), the barbarians were naturally born to be slaves. Thus, in the Age of Discovery, the main question of their humanity was that whether they did or did not have an immortal soul. In the famous Valladolid debate (1550-51) Bartolomé de las Casas defended the natives of the New World as they could accept Christianity without force and they should be considered equal and free. Later this led to importing black people from Africa to America to be kept and worked as slaves instead of native Americans...
In the Colonial Era, racism won its present form, supported by ‘science’. Social Darwinism – misinterpreting the thesis of evolution – later became the main ideological base of eugenics, fascism and Nazism. The strongest and fittest race rules the weaker ones, this is the consequence of the competition of the races for survival – it was the main ideology of colonisation and imperialism.
The concept of human zoos, or, in other words, exhibiting ‘primitive’ and strange people to the civilised public, became common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were human shows before that, mainly freakish women and men were displayed in circuses, but the Hottentot Venus was the ‘forerunner’ of later zoo exhibits. Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman was a khoikhoi woman who was ‘imported’ from South Africa. She was a big sensation both in London and Paris, but later she lost her appeal and she died in poverty as a prostitute in 1815. The famous French scientist, George Cuvier dissected her, and her brain, skeleton and genitalia (extended labia minora) were displayed in the Musee de l’Homme (‘Museum of Man’) in Paris until 1976. Her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002.
It became popular in the 1870s, when visitors could see exotic and freakish people (bearded women, midgets, gnomes, Siamese twins etc.) in the human zoos of New York, Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan and Warsaw. The German Carl Hagenbeck, who earned undying merit for creating the modern zoo, also exhibited humans, East Asian Islanders and Nubians, who had been captured in an expedition in Sudan. His zoo, the Hamburg Tierpark exhibited Inuits and Lapps too.
When the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris began exhibiting Nubians and Inuits, the number of visitors doubled and reached one million. Approximately thirty ethnological exhibitions were presented there between 1877 and 1912. Six different villages were built in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in 1907, these represented each region of the French colonial empire at that time: Madagascar, Indochine, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia and Morocco. There were human exhibits in many other large French cities from Marseilles to Lyon as well.
The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris was grandiose enough, for example we got the ugly Eiffel-tower, which became the symbol of Paris. The celebration of French colonisation could not have been imagined without trendy human exhibits. One of the major attractions was presenting 400 indigenous people. Thanks to the great success, the next World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 and Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris again (1907 and 1931) fascinated the visitors by displaying naked or semi-naked humans in cages and in closed enclosures.
In the United States the human shows started with exhibiting the indigenous people of the Wild West. While P. T. Barnum’s travelling circus looked like a freak show, William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s Wild West Show had a thrilling attraction: Sitting Bull, the great Lakota warrior and chief.
Cincinnati Zoo was among the first zoos in America to recognise the attractiveness of human exhibitions. One hundred Sioux Native Americans were invited to establish a village in the zoo. They stayed there for three months.
The World’s Fair and Summer Olympics in Saint Louis (1904) provided an opportunity to show Apaches and Philippines to the public. The famous Ota Benga was also displayed there. He was a Mbuti pygmy from Belgian Congo. The notorious Force Publique (the Belgian colonisation was one of the most bloody and cruel ones) killed his family and he was captured later. The American businessman S.P. Verner bought him when he collected pygmies for the Saint Louis World’s Fair. The theme of the exhibition was representing the people of the world from the most ’primitive’ dark pygmies to the ‘giant’ and dominant whites. Since Ota Benga’s teeth had been sharpened for ritual reasons, he was advertised as a genuine cannibal. The success of the exhibition was huge… Although Ota Benga returned with Verner to Congo, he later went back to America. He moved to the monkey house of Bronx Zoo (New York) in 1906, where he was displayed as the missing link between humans and apes, as Madison Grant, the amateur scientist and eugenicist, the secretary of the New York Zoological Society wished. The description at the exhibit was the following:
The African Pigmy, "Ota Benga."
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds.
Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner.
Exhibited each afternoon during September.
There were many protests against this situation, which led to him being allowed to leave the exhibit in the zoo. Later, the zoo gave it up and Ota Benga left the institution. He committed suicide in 1916, after failing to return home because of World War I.
Although human zoos were very popular worldwide, they almost disappeared after World War II, as the spirit of the age changed. The last classic human zoo was exhibited during the Brussels 1958 World’s Fair. The visitors could feed the indigenous people through the fence at the Congolese village. An Ivory Coast village was displayed as a part of an African safari in Port-Saint-Père (Planète Sauvage) in France in 1994. The inhabitants were free to go home after work, of course… Augsburg Zoo tried to show a similar exhibit in 2005 – it provoked widespread opposition.
It is really controversial that what kind of human exhibits are acceptable or – in other words – politically correct. What is the difference between an ethnographic presentation or an artistic performance and a racist exhibit? Stereotypic displaying of dependent people is surely not acceptable. As the science of biology has proved it, the human races belong to one species with common origins and the genetical differences among them are very slight, so zoos should avoid even the semblance of agreeing with the idea of hereditary hierarchical relationship.