The Human Zoo, A Collection of Images

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human rights images / photography and journalism

Human zoos, euphemistically called “ethnological expositions”, were quite common between the mid 1800s and the beginning of the 20th century, although they already existed during the Renaissance. Actual people, mostly from Africa, were brought over to Europe and displayed in monkey style cages or recreated villages, often side-by-side with the more traditional animal exhibits. Entire families were recruited from the colonies and paraded for the entertainment of western spectators. One can only guess how many made it back home.

Selk'nam natives on their way to Europe for being exhibited as animals in zoos. Circa 1889. The Selk'nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people, were an indigenous people in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be encountered by ethnic Europeans or Westerners in the late 19th century.

Selk’nam natives on their way to Europe for being exhibited as animals in zoos. Circa 1889. The Selk’nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people, were an indigenous people in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be encountered by ethnic Europeans or Westerners in the late 19th century.

Although she personally was never part of a “zoo” exhibition, Sarah – or “Saartjie” – Baartman (not her real name of course) is probably history’s most famous human exhibit. She’s standing in the middle here:

Sarah was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in early 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus — “Hottentot” was the then-current name for the Khoi people. “Venus” because of her body shape. After she died impoverished at a very young age, her body was dissected and her remains displayed. For more than a century and a half – until 1974! – visitors to the “Museum of Man” in Paris could view her brain and skeleton until they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; a cast of her body was still shown. In 2002, she was peacefully laid to rest in her homeland South Africa.

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Saartjie Baartman’s body cast and skeleton in the “Musée de l’homme” in Paris

Scene from a movie entitled Black Venus, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Yahima Torres as Sarah, released in 2010. It also shows the infamous French naturalist Georges Cuvier who examined her while still alive and dissected her body.

Scene from a movie entitled Black Venus, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Yahima Torres as Sarah, released in 2010. It also shows the infamous French naturalist Georges Cuvier who examined her while still alive and dissected her body after death.

The remains of one very interesting human zoo can still be visited in the Vincennes woods of Paris. Over a 100 years ago, in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale a public exhibition was held to promote French colonialism.

In 1907, six different villages were built in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, representing all the corners of the French colonial empire at the time– Madagascar, Indochine, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia and Morocco. The villages and their pavilions were built to recreate the life and culture as it was in their original habitats. This included mimicking the architecture, importing the agriculture and appallingly, inhabiting the replica houses with people, brought to Paris from the faraway territories. … Entire families recruited from the colonies were placed in replicas of their villages, given mock traditional costumes and paid to put on a show for spectators. (source)

Here’s one of the “attractions”:

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I think this is from the same “Jardin”:

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Here’s another, very “cheap” looking replica village (I don’t know where this image was taken):

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Human zoos were comparable to the much more common “freak shows”. Both focused on the display of “exotic” or strange body shapes:

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More on animalization here.

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