Human Zoos


Human Zoos is a term used for a phenomenon of the late 19th- and 20th-century where “exotic” human beings from all over the world were publically exhibited in cities of the industrialised world (sometimes even in its colonies). The main attraction of human zoos was the promise to show the “authentic traditional life” of peoples from far away.

Early forms of human exhibitions:

Traditons of exhibiting “exotic” peoples are proven as far back as the courts of the Egyptian pharaos – where “Nubian dwarfs” were shown – and the Roman Empire – where the survivors of defeated “barbaric” tribes where shown during the triumph-parades of the returning emperors. The early Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought back plants, animals and people from the lands they traveled in order to prove their successful travels. These were then often exhibited at royal courts in so-called “indian-villages”. Another phenomenon among European aristocracy of the 17th- and 18th-century was having servants of non-European descent (“Hofmohr” or “Kammermohr” in German) who were seen as a sign of wealth and refinement. These phenomena were exclusive to aristocracy and thus differ from later human zoos.

One of the first exhibitions of “exotic” people open to a broad public was that of Saartjie Baartman – also known as the Hottentot Venus – in London and Paris from 1810-1815. During the first half of the 19th-century groups or individuals of “exotic” peoples continued to be exhibited in the major cities of Europe. These shows often took place at fairs, carnivals or similar shows where “exotic” people were shown next to the popular “freak-shows“. In contrast to later human zoos these early exhibitions put a very strong emphasis on the “savageness” of the exhibited people – the exhibited were often labelled as “cannibals” – and juxtaposed them to so-called “freaks” such as people with biological rarities or diseases (microcephaly, dwarfism, gigantism, albinism, conjoined twins, etc.) and unusually skilled people (strong men, sword-swallowers, fire-breathers, etc.).

some images of early human zoos:

some images of so-called freakshows:

some images of “exotic” performers:


Human Zoos:

A new aera of human zoos started in 1874 with a group of Sami (Lapps) that was brought to Hamburg by the German entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck. Due to the great success of the show Hagenbeck continued to organize human zoos and started to send the groups on tour around Europe. He professionalized the organization and marketing of human zoos. One of Hagenbecks tools was cooperating with leading anthropologists and other scientists in order to validate the authenticity of the groups and their performances. In return the scientists were allowed to examine the exhibited people. Often special shows or meetings were held in order for the scientist to be able to carry out their examinations. Hagenbeck started calling the human zoos “anthropozoological exhibitions” and thanks to the “certificates” of the scientists could guaranteed the authenticity of the exhibited people and the scientific value of their performance.

The illustration on the right tells a story characteristic of the early human zoo aera.  An African man leaves his home and heads to Europe. There he meets an entrepreneur who successfully exhibits him as a “wild man” (wilder Mann) in a show until a policeman doughts the authenticity of the African man and calls “three professors” to examine him. Even after “three days and nights of washing” he “doesn’t turn white” and is thus proven authentic. But because of this humiliating experience the man decides to return back to Africa.

This comic – which uses very stereotypical and racist imagery – illustrates how common mistrust in early human zoos was and how scientists were used to validate their authenticity.

Münchener Bilderbogen Nro. 676 - Die Morgenwäsche

Münchener Bilderbogen Nro. 676 – Die Mohrenwäsche