Human zoo: the example of the Selk’Nam natives

Human zoo: the example of the Selk’Nam natives

Hello hello!

How is everyone? I hope everyone is enjoying summer (or winter wherever you are). I recently came across some of the pictures included in this post and was horrified. To be honest, I found it very difficult to look at them. The pain in the faces of the individuals was just too great. But I started doing some research about the pictures and the context in which they were taken. What I found was even more disturbing: the existence of human zoos. Yes you read that right, humans being placed in enclosures, “natural habitats”, and being exposed like animals (not that I agree more with animals being enclosed and being displayed). So let us explore the concept of human zoos using the example of the Selk’Nam natives.

Selk'Nam natives 1899

Selk’Nam natives en route to Europe 1899

Who were the Selk’Nam natives?

I wrote “were” as the Selk’Nam natives are now extinct. The Selk’Nam natives were a tribe from Chile, part of 3 or 4 tribes that were taken to Europe to be exhibited. They lived in the Pantagonian region of Chile and Argentina, including the Tierra del Fugo islands (“land of fire”). They were actually one of the last Indigenous tribes of South America reached by the Westerners (when the government decided to explore and make use of Tierra del Fugo).

The Selk’Nams spoke a language called Chon and they were hunters and gatherers who were typically tall. They could adapt to any harsh conditions it seems. The Selk’Nam people were people with strong traditions. As in many native cultures, they lived as one with the land. “Mine” did not exist, it was ours. They lived at peace with Mother Earth and had their own ways of life. For example, their initiation ceremony, also called Hain, signified the passage of teenage males into adulthood (some resemblances to the Sunrise Ceremony for girls in the Apache culture). The teenagers had to go through several mental and physical tasks over months at an end, a process that was kept secret. They would paint their body, wear leather masks, emulating the spirits called into the ceremony.

Native women of the Tierra del Fugo

Native women of the Tierra del Fugo

Up until the late 19th century, the Selk’Nams had been left alone. But then the Spanish killed most of their games and took over the Tierra del Fugo to build large estates. The Selk’Nams were not familiar with the Spanish way of life, they did not understand the concept of sheep herd. Therefore, they began hunting the sheep, a gesture the ranchers did not appreciate. That led to Selk’Nams being hunted by the Spanish, who would receive their bounty when they would return with their victim’s ears.

Ultimately, the Selk’Nams became extinct over time. From a population of 3000 in 1896 to a population of 25 in 1945. Yes you read that right, 25! The last full blooded Selk’Nam, Anjela Loij, died in 1974. So there you have it, a whole nation who disappeared over time, killed, hunted and treated like objects to be gawked at. Let’s then look at how that happened.

Tierra del Fugo

Tierra del Fugo

The beginning of the human zoos

How can someone think it would ever be okay to exhibit human beings in a cage to be gawked at all day? That’s a hard question. But one needs to think about it this way. A more technologically advanced population (who lacks sensitivity it seems) finds a more primitive civilization who lives in ways they have never seen. Well, they must show that civilization to the world, to study them, to look at them, and to prove their superiority over them. Over time, civilizations have often assumed that if another civilization lives in a different manner, in a manner that is hard to understand, then they must be beneath them. Look at how Native people were treated over the years and still are: as being slow, not intelligent and stupid!! Sorry but that is just the truth. The wisdom of the ancestors was not respected. It was assumed they were dumb because they did not live in the same fashion, because they did not speak English well, because they took their time answering, thinking about the question and their answer. Oftentimes, they were treated like savages with nothing to say. So following that logic, putting them in a cage for entertainment is not that farfetched.

Selk'Nam natives

Selk’nam Natives

The year was 1889

So here we are in 1889, the year when, with the agreement of the Chilean government, 11 Selk’Nams were taken to Europe to be exhibited in human zoos. This included a 8 year old boy. Carl Hagenbeck is credited as the one who made zoos as we know them now (reproducing the animal’s natural habitat). However, Mr. Hagenbeck can also be “credited” as the one who began human zoos. It is said that he is the one who took those 11 Selk’nams to Europe to be exhibited  in a cage. How nice of him…I am sorry but I cannot help the sarcasm. But back then, the Pantagonian natives were a rarity. The Selk’Nams along with the Tehuelche and the Kawesqar were weighted, measured and photographed and were expected to perform every day. Sometimes 6 to 8 times a day. So that Europeans could gasp at those savages from across the ocean. Can you think of something more demeaning than that? I cannot. Needless to say, the Selk’Nams did not receive the best of care. Therefore, many of them did not make it back. Some did not even make it to Europe. Looking at the picture below, one can see that the conditions were more than sub-par. As the man in the picture basically looks like a lion tamer…Look at their faces….

Selk'Nams with Maurice Maitre-1889

Selk’Nams with Maurice Maitre in Paris-1889

I wish that was the end of it but no

Unfortunately, the Selk’Nams were not the only ones subjected to such humiliation. Numerous Indigenous people of the land were subjected to the same treatment. People of Africa, such as the pygmies, received the same treatment even in the 20th century. They were kept in enclosures, recreating “natural habitats” (as though Europeans knew anything about what that looked like). People were basically used for entertainment, expected to perform tricks (e.g. making funny faces, shooting at targets with arrows). Their lives were placed on display, paraded as curiosities. Talk about degrading.  Just so the “white rich folks” could be entertained and show to their children “what savages looked like”. As an animal lover, I am not a fan of zoos to begin with, a topic that induce mixed feelings in most. But a human zoo? That is crossing a major line. Look at the picture below. Some were taken in 1958!! And we are now left with extinct tribes that were forced (with the okay of the government) to leave their Mother Earth, their land, their traditions. For what? So that people could be entertained.

African girl in Belgium human zoo, 1958

African girl in a Belgium human zoo, 1958

Ota Benga

The sign in front of her exhibit read: 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.

I leave you with the trailer of the movie “Human zoo” which tells the story of 25 Indigenous people from Chile who were taken to be part of the human zoos. A must watch. All my Relations

 

 

47 thoughts on “Human zoo: the example of the Selk’Nam natives

  1. Jason Williams

    I’m not even sure what to say about this……what a horrible existence these people must have endured. I’ve never heard of this before, probably because its to shameful that nobody wants to admit it happened. Where’s the chapter in the US history books about this?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Jason
      I know there is nothing to say about it…just disgusting. It is indeed not in any school book. A very sad part of history for all Indigenous people.

      Reply
    2. Jacob Frankel

      It was a horrible thing to do to these people BUT it is not in the American history books because it was NOT a part of AMERICAN history. I am sure it is not in the European history books though.

      Reply
    3. NANCY

      European history not US History….slavery here was bad enough without that….look to early Chataquas and SideShows for “freaks” of nature, any human with a defect

      Reply
    4. Linda Hill

      As a child, county and state fairs had displays of people who most likely had deformities or abnormalities. Thankfully due in a great part to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, that has stopped.

      Reply
      1. Emily Post author

        hi Linda
        very true. People “outside of the norm” have long been judged and marginalized. Looked at as though they should belong in a circus or looked down on. That makes me really sad. As it really should not be.

        Reply
  2. Bob

    Hi Emily

    It is more than terrible what happened to these people…
    Unfortunately things like this are always kept under the rug.
    How can a human being be exposed to such humiliation? And we call ourselves humans…
    There’s not much I can say…it’s sad.
    Thank you for exposing this to the public.

    Best wishes,
    Bob

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Bob
      thanks for taking the time to read this. Human zoos are certainly not a proud moment in the history of human kind. But one that really needs to be known.

      Reply
  3. Cathy

    Hi Emily,

    It’s a sad reality that some people are always going to be mean to other human beings. Although we might not see ‘human zoo’ these days anymore, modern slavery is rampant and growing behind the scene. It affects mostly the poor, the vulnerable and the less-educated. I think with the increase of global population and economic pressure, this worrying issue isn’t going to stop anytime soon. But I always believe that educating the younger generation could make a huge difference.

    By the way, thanks for the name. I’ve always wondered who created the captivity called zoo. Not a fan of it a single bit too.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Cathy
      you do bring up a good point, there are vulnerable situations out there (I work with them) who often get caught in situations that are very hard to get out of. And you are welcome for the name 🙂

      Reply
  4. Eloah

    That is so sad. It make me so angry to hear about what humans can do to other human beings. Such a horrible thing to do to a population. Very sad.

    Reply
  5. Guy

    Hi Emily,

    It’s the first time I see a thing like this. I mean, I know terrible things were done through history by men like war crimes, massacres, but human zoo… I could not imagine that it was possible. And we say that kids are cruel toward each other. Or that the next generation is worst then the previous one. That’s not what I see here.

    Where was the heart of those people entertained by that. I cannot even imagine. To me, looking down at other people like that is not a sign of superiority or intelligence. They must have laws for this today.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Guy
      the horrors of the human zoos are just incomprehensible by today’s standards. However, it is part of history. In the mind of the people running them, they were studying the “subjects”, doing them a favor almost. Studying an inferior civilization. It was a different time for sure but it does not excuse the atrocities.

      Reply
  6. Chris

    This was a difficult read but I’m glad to have had my eyes opened. It’s unfortunate that a lot of aboriginal people were thought of as an inferior back then.
    It must have been scary enough that they were losing their lands and way of life to the colonialists. Then to have these Indigenous Tribes torn apart, taken thousands of miles away to be paraded in these human zoos in a foreign land is appalling.
    Unfortunately the struggles of Aboriginal people still carries on today. It can be easy to write off these Indigenous cultures who have high incarceration rates and social economical issues as some kind of flaw on their part.
    I’m glad to have read this article since we can only understand the present by understanding the past.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Chris for reading it through. It was also hard to write. So much trauma within the native culture, almost unbelievable. And you are right, the effects are absolutely still felt today

      Reply
  7. Brooke M.

    What happened to those people is inhumane, unethical, and cruel. Leave it to mankind to destroy many civilizations, both animal and human-kinds alike. This is why I’m passionate about animals. Animals know how to love and care for each other regardless of relation, breed,etc. People are cruel, and it’s sickening. Thanks for sharing. I’ll share with my friends.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Brooke
      animals often have a sixth sense and can certainly care for others like no human can. Something the human kind could certainly learn from.

      Reply
  8. Jason

    Hi Emily,

    For once in my life I am actually speechless. I knew of some of the atrocities carried out against native peoples but never have I seen anything like this. I suppose everyone relates to the African Slave trade, which in itself was abhorrent, however we tend to forget the other indigenous people and their struggles with European colonial settlers. Although I should be fair and add that the ‘white’ Celtic populations were not treated much better…a long forgotten fact is the Irish Slave trade, which began before and ended after the African. In fact you could purchase 3 Irish slaves for the price of an African…not that makes either circumstances correct….it just sickens me to think further.
    All I can see are the faces of those tribal people, you can see the land has been wrenched from them and their faces are hollow, sad and empty.
    Its so important you wrote about this, it has impacted on me in a truly significant way. And I kind of have to admit to being completely ashamed of my heritage and humanity. The sight of those people, almost feeding that young Pygmy child, in 1958, is possibly the worst as I am sorry we had enough time, education and history by then to know that was morally and spiritually wrong. It is sad beyond anything

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      I absolutely agree Jason. In 1958? It is just incredible that it existed to begin with but that late in the 20th century is just astonishing. And yes the white men were also used as slaves or even left at orphanages to die. Really all indigenous people of the land were treated badly.

      Reply
  9. Marc

    Hey Emily

    Another very informative post. Thank you and well done.

    I feel sorry for the Selk’Nam natives, it is a common theme throughout history that the more technologically advanced civilizations walk over not only the miss understood ‘primitive’ cultures, but also nature and the planet itself.

    And although what the Spanish did is disgusting… It seems to be human nature ( a primal/ animal instinct if you will) that forces the ‘strong’ to survive and carry on like this.

    Unfortunately, the strong may be the very thing that is destroying everything we know…

    Great article. It’s good to see that cultures like the Selk’Nam natives are not completely forgotten.

    Cheers,
    Marc

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Marc
      thanks for your comment 🙂 Absolutely, it is common for the “higher” civilization to want to study the “less advanced” one. With this article, I was at least hoping to get some recognition for the Selk’nams, who are now extinct.

      Reply
  10. Todd

    Wow, I had no idea about this. I guess the plight of the indigenous people tends to get pushed under the carpet a bit. You are doing a great job getting this information out into the public. Human Zoos…..what a disgrace!

    Reply
  11. Kel

    Hi Emily, I’ve just finished reading your post about Human Zoos! I never knew such a horrid thing happened so recently. It’s ghastly! Your sarcasm about the guy who started it all, I won’t even honour him with mentioning his name, really brought a personal touch to this wanton tragedy. Well done for exposing such a terrible thing, in such a touching way.
    Kel

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Kel
      thanks for stopping by. It is horrible what happened, there truly are no words for it. And as recently as 1958. Just appalling.

      Reply
  12. Sophie

    Well I’ve learnt something new today – not nice but very interesting Emily. I’ve never heard of human zoos – just disgusting and a waste of a native tribe. It doesn’t surprise me that it was during the Victorian era when it was pretty normal to have freak circuses and curiousity shops where anyone who was slightly different was put on display.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Very good point Sophie, it was like exposing a bunch of freaks for a lack of a better word. Just because they lived in a different way and they should be put in a cage and looked at. Disgusting

      Reply
  13. Enid @BeginPreppingNow.com

    Humans have a great capacity for both great kindness and great horror. We all need to remember the past so we do not fall into the same pits. We must each find the best in our hearts and to feed the kindness…killing the mean shallow parts each day.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Enid
      knowing and remembering the past is very important so we can change and improve the present. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat it…

      Reply
  14. Jonny

    Wow – what an interesting and disturbing article on the exploitation of an indigenous people.

    What seems ghastly and unacceptable now was generally accepted back then. The evolution of social norms will probably render some of societies current actions as unacceptable eventually as well.

    Really enjoy this great read – thanks.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Jonny
      thanks for your comment! It was unacceptable back then too. The crimes committed were horrendous and just inhumane.Incredible to think about what people got away with.

      Reply
  15. Eoinmc

    The concept of a human zoo may be inconceivable in our modern age, but man’s inhumanity to man is still a cause of great suffering on a massive scale around the world.
    In order to demean, abuse, and carry out atrocities on fellow human beings you first need to dehumanise them to create a sort of psychological separation that makes these actions somehow acceptable in the eyes of the society that commits the atrocities.
    Hitler and the Nazis did this successfully with the Jews and what followed was the holocaust.
    Once you can paint a race, creed, colour, minority group, or whatever as less than human – then you can get people who might otherwise be decent – to do terrible things.
    John Pilger is an excellent journalist, born in Australia and who once worked for the BBC who throws a lot of light on the fate of Aboriginals and other ‘brown’ people who have suffered badly at the hands of the ‘civilised’ ‘developed’ world. You’ll find his documentaries on YouTube and I highly recommend him.

    And – It’s still happening.

    Reply
  16. Samantha

    Thank you for sharing this particular story. I’d never heard of the Selk’Nam before. What a terrible injustice that was done to them. It’s important that we keep sharing stories like this and never forget – and hopefully improve.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Samantha!
      Thanks for stopping by! Yes absolutely we need to know about the history and our past so we can learn from it and improve.

      Reply
  17. Alex

    Hey Emily,

    Thank you for taking the difficult time to research, study, write, and share this story.
    Certainly we (mankind) have made many horrible decisions, and it continues even today.
    Stories need to be told, and they need to be learned from. I hope these histories inspire us to treat others how we would want to be treated, and to be a voice for voiceless today in 2015.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Alex
      thanks for your heartfelt comment. It is about giving a voice to those who did not have one for the longest time. Luckily some of the younger generations are now speaking up and taking a stand.

      Reply
  18. pablo

    As An Argentinean citizen been living in that place (Tierra del Fuego) for some time..it is very sad to see that you dont have any knowledge of the selknam people.

    English farmers with a bunch of italians and specialy an infamous romanian jew were the buchers who raped..killed and mutilate selknams ..gaving a coin for each selknam’s ears with the help, of course, of the goverment of this new country called argentina some spanish people settled here or their sons or grandsons.

    A vast and cold land that they colonized just for selling wool cardigans back in England and gold that never was found.

    Finally some politicians from the spanish-argentinean goverment had the idea to build a prison puting there all the most dangerous criminals from Buenos Aires ..like a sort of French guyana’s devils island.

    Another failure because the prison at Ushuaia (tierra del Fuego capital) was abandoned ..and today it is just a cheap museum to visit.

    That is the way to this europeans and the Argentinean post-european goverment vanished an entire culture leaving there just vestiges of an horrible past.

    Tierra del fuego or land of fire it is just an spanish name for a piece of land they found.

    Selknam people called their land Karukinka.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Pablo
      thank you for the additional knowledge. I am aware of the meaning of Tierra del Fugo. And of the way the Europeans treated the Selknam people. Such a horrific way to treat other human beings and to just abolish a culture and traditions.

      Reply

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