Thankfully, most people today have never heard of a human zoo. But they were once real, even popular exhibits that were built to display humans, often in a so-called natural or primitive state. The concept was invented when P.T. Barnum popularized “freak shows” in the first half of the 19th century. By 1870 the shows had extended to include people with cultural backgrounds that were deemed primitive. Within the decade, human zoos could be found in Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York, and Warsaw with 200,000 to 300,000 visitors attending each exhibition.
Congolese pygmy Ota Benga was on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City in 1906. He was forced to carry around chimpanzees and other apes. He would ultimately die from a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart.
A black mother and her child at a display in Germany. This exhibit was very popular and even visited by conservative statesman Otto von Bismarck.
Visitors look into one of the many human zoos in France from a display up above.
Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was a 20-year-old girl from South Africa with a genetic characteristic known as steatopygia — protuberant buttocks and elongated labia. She was recruited to work in a Paris zoo.
Another one of France’s human zoos. It was said the village would often display the people to dehumanize them and compare them to animals.
Also in France, this event was part of the “World’s Fair”.
Africans are shown participating in archery in 1904 in St Louis at an event called the “Savage Olympics Exhibition.”
Another “simulated” village created for paying customers to visit.
Pygmies dancing during an exhibition to entertain visitors at zoos in both Germany and England.
A Somalia village exhibit at Luna Park in St. Petersburg, Russia.
An African mother in a display with her child.
At the 1931 Parisian World Fair, this exhibit that was so successful that it drew 34 million people.
While these exhibitions are easily viewed as appalling today, they have occurred more recently than one might think. A Congolese village was displayed at the Brussels 1958 World’s Fair and in April 1994, an example of an Ivory Coast village was presented as part of an African safari in Port-Saint-Père, France.