HUMAN ZOOS – When human dignity was wounded

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Take a minute and imagine yourself away from the microcosm of your urban neighborhood, away from the familiar environment that you think defines you as a social being, and get into the logic of the small village away from the noise of the city. Somewhere in Africa, somewhere in Australia, somewhere in Northern Latin America, in those remote – primitive – landscapes, the ones that ecologists refer to when they eagerly try to convince you of the climate crisis. There. Surrounded by your neighbors, the villagers you know, the place you love and you feel it is giving back to you. Think also of how you react to the presence of a stranger in this place you love. You feel that he violates it with his presence when he crosses that imaginary line that you have defined as a boundary. A burglary in a private home, a foreign invasion in a city of the nation. You feel the same thing. I am violated, threatened, but I must adapt to survive.

Back again to the small village. Think of the sensation the indigenous people felt when the first colonial conquerors arrived at this imaginary line and without second thought violated Congo, Thailand, Ceylon, Australia, Tahiti, Guyana, the Ivory Coast and so many dozens of other countries of the so-called Third World. But, compared to an ordinary burglar – who might get short and think he might get caught – these beings carried guns, armour, had different skin, spoke a strange and foreign language to you, and had something that doesn’t appear…determination. Let’s talk about that determination. A word with a positive expectation, but in this case it’s not positive by any means. On the contrary, it has a negative connotation, with an underhanded envious arrogance. I know for a fact that arrogance has a negative connotation, which can sometimes cause immense suffering. But how is the suffering measured? What measure does one put on evil? We say, “how much evil he did” or “how much evil his actions caused”. History has shown that this evil became the guide, the emblem of these beings when with determination and audacity they violated the imaginary lines of the different, of the “other”. And science – that acquired human creation – stood by its side.

Human zoos are precisely this confluence of evil and science, of arrogance and knowledge. The absurdity of this story is that unfortunately both science and knowledge have been sacrificed on the altar of colonialism and supremacy. When we think of scientists today, we think of enlightened people who have dedicated their lives to research with the ultimate goal of breaking the grip of darkness, and bringing human intelligence out of its shackles, into the light, into the knowledge of the world, into all those unknown elements that cause fear and doubt about the future. But, if we go back 300 years, to the 18th century, we find that some of the scientists were nothing more than some Western arrogant social elites of the “civilized nations” who used “knowledge for the few” to establish a universal view of cultural differentiation.

To be understood – because it will never be accepted – the reason why people have reached the point of publicly humiliating other people, exposing them to cages and freak shows, we have to go back to the dawn of colonialism. When Christopher Columbus made transatlantic travel possible for the modern world in 1492, it was inevitable that the empires of Europe would cling to expansionism. Spanish, Portuguese and later English expansion – as well as many others – created a climate of supremacy. Imagine yourself solving a difficult math exercise while all your other classmates struggle. How do you feel? Superior, smarter, and more or less dominant in thought. So are the colonists. That’s how the Portuguese colonists felt when they arrived in Mozambique (1506), Brazil (1532), Angola (1571), and many other regions [1]. They came across people who in their eyes appeared to be “savages” “primitive” “primordial people” with simplistic social systems and no intelligence. Otherwise, “people who needed help to evolve, like us”. Simultaneously with Europe’s colonial obsession, in the centuries following Columbus’ overseas voyage, Christianity was flourishing. The religion that was collectively associated with expansionism, it played a leading role in most invasions of sovereignty. Back to classroom. Think of yourself again as a mathematical genius, only before the final test, you need an encouragement, meaning someone to lift your spirits to get you to write well. Christianity did something like that, in the light of the missionaries. The flag and the cross were marching to even more unknown and inaccessible parts of the remote world in order to convent [2] unbelievers, pagans and not so evolutionarily advanced people. Put yourself in the place of a Tahitian young boy, in the place of a Congolese mother, when they first beheld the invulnerable armor, helmets, all those shapes that were sculptured onto their iron uniforms, while you the only thing you are protected from is your fear of an uncertain future. When the Portuguese arrived in southern Japan in 1543, they did not consider that the “monsters” they were supposedly looking for, and who had promised to bring some of them back home, were essentially themselves. The following is an excerpt from an unknown Japanese chronicler of the 17th century describing the image of a Jesuit priest.

The first thing one noticed was how long its nose was! It was like a wartless conch-shell, stuck onto [his face] by suction. How big its eyes were! They were like pairs of telescopes, but the irises were yellow. Its head was small; it had long claws on its hands and feet. It was over seven feet tall and was black in colour…Above its forehead it’d shaved a spot on its pate about the size of an overturned sake cup. Its speech was incomprehensible to the ear; its voice resembled the screech of an owl. Everyone ran to see it, mobbing the roads with abandon. They thought this phantasm more terrible than the most ferocious monster. [3].

The first time in history that a foreigner invaded a local village in South Africa, or Mozambique, Tahiti or Papua New Guinea, how did the inhabitants protect themselves from the colonial guns, from the unstoppable fury of the drunken supposed masters of the world? I will use the term James Scott quotes with “the weapons of the weak”. What are they? Their home, their familiar surroundings, even their bodies [4] – the only integrity they have left – when after the depredations even the slightest memory of the quiet past fell into a deep lethargy.

This is a tribute to all those thousands of people who were put on public display in the grandiose centres of Europe and America in order to present the “primitive”, the “savage” and even more to assert their domination. When you are not sure for something, the most likely and logical thing to do is to find evidence to support your decision or to find some other evidence that rejects what you stand for. In an open and democratic world this is possible and therefore necessary. But in the centuries, I will mention below, this affirmation was nothing more than a fabrication, a false statement by the scientific community – with anthropology residing on the thrones of colonialism – that in essence the presence of these “savages” confirmed what they were already doing. The truth lies in the souls of thousands of eyes that you as a visitor to the human zoos would stare into, without really seeing. Historical documents mention the existence of human zoos, although not enough attention is given to this humiliation at the hands of the powers. In all search sources, one reads the biography of the people who caged the natives and pushed them into degradation and humiliation. However, the thousands of people who were exposed remain unknown to history. They are gone, and their stories are gone with them.


This article will explore three major human exhibitions through the eyes of the personal stories of the exposed people themselves. The exhibitions were based in Paris, New York and London. The living exhibitions – as they were referred to – spread around the world, to places that were part of the colony of major European countries, such as Brazil, Thailand and others. The greatest horror, however, took place in the heart of Europe and America, in the cities that were the pedestal for the foundation of human rights, for freedom and the emancipation of monarchy, for the independence of the nation. The ironic historical trajectory shows that it is not the place that matters, but the people who make it up. The people who established universal human rights were different from the people who a century later exhibited people in cages for the public. Nevertheless, one thing remains the same for all three countries. A supposed supremacy, established by the scientific community of the time, and unfortunately by a social science that was just beginning to take its first steps. Anthropology.

During the 19th century, so-called Social Evolutionism had developed as a result of colonialism and Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species (1959). Social Evolutionism [5] largely supported the idea of superiority of colonialists and the inferiority of the colonized based on the social evolution of groups. Western powers according to this theory were evolutionarily superior. They had advanced systems of social organization, institutions, polities, philosophy and fine arts. The so-called “others” of anthropology lived simplistically, with meager institutions, with impotent organization. The telling difference – and the one that shocked the colonialists when they first arrived in these regions – was the relationship these people had with nature. The entire science of anthropology in the 19th century was based on the view that evolutionarily advanced cultures were distant from their natural state, while evolutionarily inferior cultures were still dependent on it. According to the evolutionist Lubbock, an understanding of the prehistoric period with regard to the cultures that developed then can only be achieved by comparing the present cultures of the same cultural stage. In other words, modern civilized man – according to Evolution – contains all the previous stages of evolutionary civilization. But alongside this model of man, there are cultural groups that have been “left behind”. Thus, ethnography must study the present “primitive” peoples in order to understand in depth the formation of prehistoric cultural systems [6]. When such a view dominates the minds of science, the human creation that exploded the theocratic standards of the Middle Ages and established the anthropocentric study of societies, it follows that the intoxication of the world’s rulers becomes ever more and more gigantic. With the blessings of science and, by extension, Christianity, the colonialists would not hesitate at all. There are many reports of violence, vandalism and murder against the indigenous peoples of the world during the expansion of Europe empires. It is this monstrous nebula that caused the emergence of human zoos and worse, their acceptance by the populations of the major capitals.

The man behind the human zoos is Carl Hagenbeck. An enthusiast of exotic animals, Hagenbeck supplied European zoos with exotic animals, and he was the creator of the Hamburg Zoo from 1907 [7]. His obsession with “exoticism” took on greater dimensions when he exhibited live humans next to animals at the zoo. He believed that the staging of his “workers” would be the key to success. Success was green. Most exhibitors, like Hagenbeck, sought nothing more than fame and money. Money, the universal symbol that pulls the strings of the whole world, and for its sake motivated him to exhibit people. Hagenbeck thought of exhibiting the natives in a context that would resemble their natural environment, just as he did with his animals. The public, on the other hand, was excited about the exotic, the “other”. It was something completely unknown to the great capitals of Europe. Seizing the opportunity for visibility, Hagenbeck brought Saami people from Northern Scandinavia and placed them with reindeers, brought Egyptians with their camels, brought natives from Peru and placed them in caves with bone accessories [8].


Hagenbeck’s stereotypical and prejudiced projection led to even greater expanses. In 1878 and 1889 the World’s Fair took place in Paris. The Fair was home to countless technological achievements, including telescopes, tools, machines and the majestic Eiffel Tower. At the same time as the technological achievements, human beings were on display. Various small settlements “suitable for the endemic environment of the exposed people” were set up in the exhibition areas. According to Asmaa Jama, the Paris Exhibition of 1889 attracted 28 million people, who went to the extent of paying the tickets to see this exotic thing they had in mind, which, with the right advertising, had magnified global racial racism [9]. The arrogance of French in the 19th century hypnotized the public, guided their thoughts and their perspective. The people who were exposed were seen at least as domesticated animals, obeying the orders of their superiors. To the already existing humiliation of the exposed humans, other experimental shows were added. Javanese people, Indonesia, satisfied the racist eyes hidden behind their grotesque smiles of the spectators by dancing traditional dances and performing local rituals of their homeland [10].

The barbarity of the “powerful” is being established from the ground up, through the story of a man from New Caledonia. This man’s name was Marius Kaloïe. Marius belonged to the Kanak culture and lived with his family in New Caledonia, a colony of France, for more than a century. In 1931, a French official persuaded Marius Kaloïe to travel to Paris in order to introduce the Kanak culture to Europeans. When, in the midst of the misery of colonial madness and the unjustified conquest of your land, you are offered to travel to present the unique characteristics of your culture, you feel special, extraordinary. You say, maybe they really do care about us…maybe they really do want to advertise us so that people from all over the world know about us. The official’s promise, much later, will turn out to be a convenient deception. During the inter-war period, the Jardin d’Acclimatation was a big attraction in France. A giant exhibition, three times the size of today’s Disneyland in Paris, hosted thousands of people from the remote colonies of France, in order to confirm the inferiority of the human species and, at the same time, the superiority of France’s exhibitors and “tamers”. Marius Kaloïe and 100 other Kanaks eventually travelled to Paris, where they were exhibited at the Fair. They had been promised that in 8 months they would return home. For 8 months these chosen Kanaks had to dig with primitive tools, make objects with meagre resources and dance traditional dances all day long. It would come as no surprise that women were forces to breastfeed in public. Once again, human dignity was violated, a value that was bent when 33 million tickets were sold at that time.

A respite from the endless humiliation suffered by the indigenous people is the fact that some in Paris had protested. The League for Human Rights of France, communists and former New Caledonian settlers saw the spectacle accurately as it was, not as it was – supposedly – presented. The protests of these people prompted the same exposed Kanaks to rebel as well. With their hands tied, the officials were forced to close the exhibition and return the 99 Kanaks back to their home. But one of them decided to stay. Marius Kaloïe never returned to New Caledonia. He fell in love with a French woman named Juliette Gabrielle Favre and decided to stay with her. Marius Kaloïe, despite the difficulties that he had to face in racist France, met a horrible death one day as he was swept away by a tram in a city. The next day his daughter Sylvette came into the world.

Juliette Gabrielle Favre concealed her husband’s ethnic identity from Sylvette. Only many years later did Sylvette discover her father’s identity. Her roots lay with him, the memories of atrocities buried with him. Sylvette managed – though she never met him – to keep his memory alive. In 2006 she arranged for his remains to be returned among his people in New Caledonia. He has since been laid to rest in the Nathalo Cemetery on Lifou Island, New Caledonia. Sylvette’s reception by the local people was welcoming to say the least. They prepared food, the children sang chants about the afterlife. The most important part of this visit is that Sylvette had the opportunity to hear the true story of her father from the local inhabitants [11].

It is important to learn from history, to face this brutal truth about human zoos, to keep their memory alive. Let us not forget that those thousands of people who perished in the passage of history had the soul and fortitude to withstand the brutality of the colonial reality. Marius Kaloïe represents for modern people a story that escaped the fate of so many thousands of other forgotten stories. In the darkness of colonialism, in the dark tunnel of human zoos, small glimmers of light emerge from the power of these small stories to remind us that this humiliation did indeed exist.


During the 19th century in America, the person behind the “Greatest Show on Earth” and the so-called “Freak Shows” dominated the scene. This man was called Phineas Taylor Barnum. Drunk on attracting fascination for the “other”, Barnum was responsible for exposing thousands of people to the cages of America’s civilized zoos. Hunting “freaks” as he called them, Barnum sought out the strangest humans alive, including Siamese twins, giants, dwarfs and others [12]. In 1883, Barnum commissioned Robert Cunningham to seek out and transport Australian Aborigines to adorn his magnificent exhibition. Cunningham, an ambitious and unflappable man, met Kukamunburra in Queensland, Australia. Kukamunburra is known in the West as Tambo. Tambo along with his family endured a long journey, as he was considered the last human link, the closest human type to the apes. The Aborigines of Australia had not the slightest knowledge of what they were about to undergo in that foreign land. Upon arriving in America, Tambo and his family joined Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth”, which was advertised in a suitably racist manner: “Experience the thrill as the fierce warrior Tambo performed his sensational war dance” [13]. Barnum’s exhibition travelled to various states of America with Tambo performing his commands.

Just think of a little boy, frightened and submissive before the crows of colonialism that were sucking away every last shred of his dignity, exposed in front of thousands of people, facing only the limits of human humiliation. In 1884, while touring America with his fellow travelers, Kukamunburra fell ill and died in a corner of a frozen wagon. Another story lost as human degradation continued furiously. Cunningham seized the opportunity for more money. He mummified his body and sold his remains to a museum in Cleveland. In 1993, Kukamunburra was discovered in the basement of a Cleveland, Ohio funeral home. Walter, a descendant of Kukamunburra undertook the transportation of his remains to Palm Island. With the support of the Australian government, Kukamunburra was released after a century from the shackles of racism that still haunts the empty museum and exhibition halls that helped spread this vulgarity. Kukamunburra has returned home…at last he can now finally be laid to rest, but no forgotten.

Another story set again in America adds to this atrocity, this time from Africa. In this case, an American missionary and Southern gentleman, Samuel Verner, took six Pygmies from the Congo and brought them to America to the St. Louis Exhibition. The Pygmies, a Central African tribe, do not rival the other natives in height, being considerably smaller. This feature along attracted the interest of colonialists as well as science. Pygmies were considered by the scientific community in the Americas as the human species related to the apes. Carrying the banner of Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory, Africans and other indigenous people of Australia were seen as inferior to the human evolutionary scale. In particular, William McGee, an anthropologist and head of the World’s Fair Anthropology Department, repeatedly stressed that the Pygmies represented the lowest form of human evolution, the type that only recently in history was removed from the Simian family [14]. One of the six Pygmies that Verner brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair was named Ota Benga. Ota Benga was purchased by Verner at a slave market in the Congo and in 1906 was officially exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in New York City after he sold him to the zoo director, William Temple Hornaday. With the blessings of the Anthropological Society, Pygmies suffered public humiliation at the Zoo. Ota Benga attracted the largest audience the Bronx Zoo had ever seen. The reason for this, it seems, was his teeth. Ota Benga had sharp teeth, which was justified by the scientific community as the reason for his cannibalistic nature.

This unconscionable behavior by New York’s supposedly superior mammals outraged a small group of African-American clergy in the city. The leader of this resistance was the Reverend Robert Steward McArthur, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. McArthur openly protested the issue of human beings exposed in the zoo and took the opportunity to make a reference to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. He argued strongly that the exhibition of Ota Benga confirmed this theory, which in his opinion was contrary to Christianity. McArthur would soon be mortified not only by the zoo officials, but also by the city’s most famous newspaper, the New York Times [15]. Specifically, they stated:

We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter […] The suggestion that Benga should be placed in a school instead of a cage, ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books, is now far out of date. [16]

In the uproar, and after the many protests that took place regarding the exhibition of Ota Benga, the boy became even more famous. All of this defamation caused a huge mob of New Yorkers to try in unison to confront Ota Benga. On Sunday, September 16, 1906, 40.000 New Yorkers chased Ota Benga through the Zoo, pushing and beating him with fury [17] as if he were an object, without a soul, without dignity, a sub-human being who deserved to suffer all this humiliation.

Eventually, and after this degrading adventure that young Ota Benga was about to face, they decided to be transferred to the Howard colored Orphan Asylum. Ota Benga was later transferred to a seminary in Lynchburg. There, he met Anne Spencer, a respected African-American woman, poet and human rights activist. She helped him in his education and stayed by his side for many years, supporting his remaining humanity [18]. Ota Benga expressed many times his desire to return to his home country, the Congo. When for a long period of time, exposed to the zoo, he simply recalled it from memory, keeping him in the days before he was sold, in the village he loved, and felt it is was giving back to him. The village we spoke of at the beginning. In his homeland.

Despite his efforts, he was never allowed to return home, as World War I was raging, and the European powers had destroyed what was left alive on the African continent. For 10 years after his removal from the zoo, Ota Benga was forgotten by the public [19].

In 1916, he ended his life. He committed suicide, unable to endure any longer the human degradation he had suffered for so many years in America. The last hopes that kept him alive, the ones that would have given him a ticket home, were dashed. All hope was extinguished, strengthening the one-way path to his imminent death. Ota Benga’s story, along with so many thousands of others, was forgotten in time. The cause of his forgotten story is the demeaning statements of the New York Times, which without obscenity stated that Ota Benga was an employee of the Zoo and his stay there was justified in his assigned post. Ota Benga, in other words, was staying at the zoo not as an exhibit, but as a caretaker of the monkeys [20]. His story was discovered in 1990 when his grave was found in Lynchburg. An anonymous grave, the identity of which was passed on by word of mouth. This was the treatment of this boy after his death. Ota Benga’s soul never got to rest in his homeland. Instead, it lies in a lifeless wooden box, like one of the millions of war dead. But what is about to be forgotten and misinterpreted always had a way of coming back as the unexpected truth.

All the false statements, the humiliation, the experiments suffered by these people came to the surface many years later, by people like Sylvette Kaloïe or Grandpa Walter, who refused oblivion and stood up for a righteous redemption. Against the wind of all those who to this day deny the involvement of some in the atrocious human-to-human behavior. The Bronx Zoo to this day refuses to show the place where Ota Benga was exhibited. It is withheld from the public to this day [20]. The little house in which he was confined for ten years has been left deserted, with no memory of its harrowing past.


As a student of this fascinating and multifaceted science called anthropology, I believe that this past should be studied. It should be included in the curricula of modern social science. We are a fragment of this past, we are connected by an imaginary thin line. We owe what we are to the historical journey that this multidimensional science has taken. We must not leave it out, instead, we must look human zoos straight in the eye, the humiliation that all these people have suffered, which our science has allowed. It is our duty to rescue the stories from oblivion. If we don’t do it, who will? Let each of us finally take our responsibility, let us make peace with our past, the past that was shaped by others, whose actions paved the way for us to be able to challenge them today. Even if it is only in the nick of time, let there be a redemption, a real tribute and a genuine and meaningful attention to the individual stories of the millions of people displaced from their land, separated from their children, from their wives and fathers, exposed against their will in zoological cages without a trace of humanity. Let us contribute to the creation of a cultural memory, a global embrace that holds the stories of all the people who suffered this humiliation, the moment in time when human dignity was wounded.

The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism
-Claude Levi-Strauss-


[1] Cartwright Mark, (2021)
[2] Johnston, A. (n.d.) (2003)
[3] Gosden Chris (2002)
[4] Landau S. Paul (2000)
[5] Paul A. Erickson, Liam D. Murphy (2002)
[6] Gosden Chris (2002)
[7] Annika Zeitler, Rayna Breuer ( (11 June, 2019)
[8] ibid
[9] Asmaa Jama (30 April, 2019)
[10] Brantley Sanders
[11] Pascal Blanchard (2018)
[12] ibid
[13] ibid
[14] John G. West (2018)
[15] ibid
[16] ibid
[17] ibid
[18] Green, J. (1993)
[19] John G. West (2018)
[19] ibid
[20] ibid


  • Annika Zeitler, Rayna Breuer ( (11 June, 2019), Carl Hagenbeck: The inventor of the modern animal park, Deutsche Welle 
  • Asmaa Jama (30 April, 2019). Black people on display. The forgotten history of Human Zoos. Rife Magazine
  • Brantley Sanders, “1889 Exposition Universelle,” W&L Paris, accessed September 2, 2022,
  • Cartwright Mark, (19 July, 2021). Portuguese Empire – World History Encyclopedia
  • Gosden Chris (2002). Archaeology and Anthropology: A Changing Relationship, Taylor & Francis e-Library
  • Green, J. (1993). Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota Benga: the pygmy in the Zoo. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1992, 296 pp., ISBN 0 312 08276 2. Africa, 63(03), 431–432. doi:10.2307/1161431
  • John G. West (2018). Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism. Discovery Institute,
  • Johnston, A. (n.d.). The British Empire, colonialism, and missionary activity. Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800–1860, 13–37. – Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/cbo9780511550324.002
  • Landau S. Paul (2000). Hegemony and History in Jean and John L. Comaffo’s “Of Revelation and Revolution”. Cambridge University Press, vol 70 no. 3:
  • Pascal Blanchard (2018). Colonial Crimes. Deutsche Welle
  • Paul A. Erickson, Liam D. Murphy (2002), Η Ιστορία της Ανθρωπολογικής Σκέψης, εκδ. Κριτική
  • Για την φωτογραφία του εξωφύλλου: Library of Congress,
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