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A white audience peers in on a group of Filipinos on display at New York's Coney Island in 1905.Library of Congress
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A little Filipino girl sits inside her enclosure as well-dressed Americans gaze in from the other side at New York's Coney Island in 1905.Library of Congress
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A Senegalese village set up inside of a human zoo at the World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium in 1958.New York Public Library
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Filipinos of the Igorot ethnic group rest after dancing as part of an exhibition at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.Library of Congress
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Shortly after the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, one of the Pygmy men displayed there, Ota Benga, was put on permanent display in the Bronx Zoo. He was placed in the monkey house, where he was labelled as "The Missing Link," implying that he occupied a lower rung in the evolutionary ladder than did white people.Library of Congress
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Ota Benga (second from left) and others on display at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
After Reverend James Gordon, an African-American clergyman, protested Ota Benga's display alongside apes in a human zoo, The New York Times responded with an editorial that read: "The pygmies ... are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place ... from which he could draw no advantage whatever."Wikimedia Commons
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Gordon was ultimately able to win Ota Benga his freedom. After a life in a zoo among primates, however, Benga was unable to assimilate into American culture.
Benga intended to return home to the Congo, but the outbreak of WWI made it impossible for him to charter a ship home. Benga then fell into depression.
Ten years after earning his freedom, Ota Benga shot himself in the chest with a pistol. He was buried two days later.Wikimedia Commons
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A Filipino child named Singwa of the Igorot ethnic group at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.Library of Congress
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Professor Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo, arrives in Berlin, 1931. With him are members of the African Sara-Kaba tribe, who will soon be put on display. The scarves over the women's mouths are covering their lip plates.Wikimedia Commons
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Heck poses with some of the attractions he brought to the Berlin Zoo, including an elephant and an African family. 1931.Wikimedia Commons
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Columbia — an Eskimo girl born at one of the human zoos of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 — poses inside the human zoo at the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904.Library of Congress
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Original caption: "Asian(?) baby seated holding spoon or ladle, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois." 1893.Library of Congress
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Native American men perform a snake dance to excite the audience at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.Library of Congress
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A Samoan man known only as William poses during his time in an exhibition at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.Library of Congress
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A Filipino family of the Igorot ethnic group takes a break and enjoys the attractions of the World's Fair, side-by-side with the Europeans who had just watched them in their exhibition. St. Louis, 1904.
The original caption reads, "The Extremes Meet - Civilization and Savage Watching Life Savers' Exhibition."Library of Congress
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Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II gazes curiously at the Ethiopians on display on the other side of the fence in Hamburg, 1909.Wikimedia Commons
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Original caption: "'Cannibals carrying their master', World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill." 1893.
Library of Congress
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Balinese dancers at the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris.Wikimedia Commons
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Siblings Maximo and Bartola, billed as the last living Aztecs at many mid-19th century human zoos (including some exhibitions put on P.T. Barnum), were actually from El Salvador.
They suffered from microcephaly and development disabilities, which sadly made them a particularly interesting attraction; often, their disabilities were not explained to the audience, who were permitted to imagine that every Aztec looked just like Maximo and Bartola.Wikimedia Commons
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Maixmo and Bartola stripped naked and photographed, 1901.
Human zoos were often also called "ethnographic exhibitions" and thus considered a way for anthropologists and the public to "study" other races. Often, the people on display would be treated like scientific curiosities to be prodded and probed.Wikimedia Commons
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Not far from Filipino exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, Apache hero Geronimo poses for tourists and signs autographs. Geronimo and several other Native American chiefs were also on display at the event.Wikimedia Commons
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A photograph of an unidentified man also, like Ota Benga, referred to as "The Missing Link" at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.Library of Congress
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Chief Yellow Hair and his council stand in front of replicas of teepees at a human zoo at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.Library of Congress
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Kanak Warriors wear their traditional clothing at the Colonial Exhibition of Paris in 1931.Wikimedia Commons
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Dancers from Siguiri, Guinea put on a show at the Colonial Exhibition of Paris in 1931, the tops of their bodies bare.Wikimedia Commons
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African exhibition subjects pose in Oslo, Norway, 1914.Wikimedia Commons
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An Egyptian dancer poses at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.Library of Congress
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A Vietnamese man poses at the Colonial Exhibition of Paris in 1931.Wikimedia Commons
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A Congolese Pygmy tribe dances at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.Wikimedia Commons
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Filipinos of the Igorot ethnic group dance at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.Library of Congress
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Filipinos of the Igorot ethnic group ride an elephant at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.Library of Congress
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Moorish camel drivers at the Colonial Exposition of Paris in 1931.Wikimedia Commons
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Unidentified members of a human exhibition in Oslo, Norway, 1914.Wikimedia Commons
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A woman, likely of Javanese origin, works with textiles as part of an exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.Library of Congress
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A Filipino family of the Igorot ethnic group poses in front of replicas of their traditional homes at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.
The Igorot were a major attraction at the World's Fair, which was held shortly after their native land was colonized by the United States.Library of Congress
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Filipino boats of the Igorot ethnic group sail down a manmade pool in the center of the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.Library of Congress
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Arabian parade at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.Library of Congress
Colonialism’s Cages: When Indigenous People Were Placed In Human Zoos
In the thick of late 19th and early 20th-century colonialism, across Europe and the United States, people -- along with animals -- could be found in zoos. There, white families could gawk at individuals who had been dragged from foreign countries and placed inside cages, where they acted out a performance of their "daily life" for the onlookers' entertainment.
Indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas -- and almost anywhere else that non-white people could be found -- served as the exhibits' subjects.
After being taken from their homes and hauled across the ocean, these individuals would be placed (sometimes behind fences or wires) in enclosures designed as artificial replicas of their "natural habitats," including a fake ecosystem and prop versions of their former homes. Visitors could then peer into their cages to see how the "other half" lived.
How the subjects of these human zoos lived was, of course, an orchestrated performance, one full of dubious rituals and ceremonial dances designed to make the subjects' cultures seem as exotic and strange as possible. Some subjects, for example, would declare a new chief every day, or stage a wedding or a religious dance for the delight of their audience.
When the show ended, the subjects could be taken out of the zoo and carted around the world to another one. Perhaps they would move on to another "Negro Village" at the World's Fair, for one. Some would become permanent displays in public zoos or oddities at freak shows.
It was the oddity that really captivated people so much – the strangeness of another culture, plucked out of its natural environment and put on display.
Often, the people displayed would be chosen for the uniqueness of their bodies. Many were displayed in the nude and treated as scientific subjects, studied to develop guides of the physical characteristics that, the researchers claimed, defined primitivism and savagery.
Some subjects would even be displayed under signs calling them a missing link in human evolution – a lower stage of humanity, somewhere between apes and white people. This kind of thinking gave a certain scientific "legitimacy" to the rapid and vicious expansion of colonialism around the world.
The people in these cages likely did not always understand what they represented to the visitors who came to see them. They just saw the white faces staring in, watching them with pity, curiosity – or disgust.
The dehumanizing world of human zoos wasn't so long ago, with many existing well into the 20th century. Today, we still have a photographic record of what it was like to peer in on somebody's life – and what it was like to look out on the eyes watching you.
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.