Human Zoos: Subconscious Global Color Lines

African mother and child in the African exhibit in Paris.
African mother and child in the African exhibit in Paris.


One of the strongest global collective memories, still operating in our world today as “the global color line between white and other,” is the Human Zoo.

These “zoos” were planned and constructed to exhibit “aborigines,” native “tribal” peoples, and “indigenous” darker-skinned peoples from around the world, for white and white wanna-be people to be amused and entertained and “discovered” by. Often, they were just added exhibits to existing animal zoos.

From the Asia-Pacific and Pacific Islands, African, European and American continents, the white formation of a “world” was being formed via the consolidating of global mapping and human social ordering through race science (white at the top) and the self-structures of modernity (future-oriented and primitivity connected to the past, ecology and less rational), through which the assumptions of superiority and inferiority are silently or overtly proven.  From Burun and Atayal people of Formosa (Taiwan), Igorot and Aeta from the Philippines, Native American tribes including Inuit and Sioux from North America,The Sami of Finland, Egyptian and Congo tribal peoples, and many others, were exhibited.

St. Louis, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Seattle, San Francisco, Coney Island, the Bronx, London, Berlin, Marseilles, Cincinnati, and others……….. and as late as 2005, these zoos are still accepted. We can see deeper, into the roots of today’s “Human Trafficking.” Native Americans were taken to zoos in Cincinnati, Ohio (USA), for instance, while some of them were shipped to far-flung areas of the world to be exhibited as part of “America–the New World” Exhibits in Europe.

The human exhibits were placed alongside or within ecological exhibits where the flora and fauna, and the animal and primate exhibits were. This sets up the idea of darker-skinned people being closer to nature and therefore animalistic, primitive—with the understanding that therefore, there is more emotion that intellect, and even with intellect, there is less or no intelligence, and confirming the colonial-imperial notion of the white person and its followers as being more “advanced,” distanced from nature and animals, with white-on-top of the hierarchy. The uncaring attitudes toward the land and earth (i.e. the “environment”—which is a very alienated kind of word anyway), as well as the ongoing prejudices and distancing that modern people create toward and about  “indigenous” and “tribal” peoples, and “native” peoples everywhere, is very much a continuation of this consciousness. One can even see this when we watch an audience when they are watching people-of-color and indigenous people “perform” on television or at music shows.

We must also understand that this is a construction of a global structure, a “One-World” consciousness that is hierarchical, with racism as one of its operational modes in making nations and “keeping the peace.” The issues we see today, with the brutalization of aborigines by authorities and the justice system in Australia, and the impunity, is similar to the way Native Americans and Black-Americans are treated in the United States, as well as the current climate of Islamophobia.  For Muslims and Middle Easterners, when the white consciousness is revealed by many—including former President George Bush Jr, the idea of them being “blown out of their caves” is a direct link to the kill-ability of people closer to “the primitive” through the referencing of living in caves.

It is not only about white people and people of color, as an easy divide. It is not about individual morality, although it is, but it is also about structure, as I have mentioned.

In order for a nation that is not white, to be included in the global family, to be taken seriously, it is to participate.

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So in the establishing of the Human zoos in the 19th, 20th centuries, through today, national governments such as the Japan, the Philippines, and others, participated. The Japanese sent Burun, Ayatal and Rukai and other peoples in Taiwan as a way to “pay tribute and be included” in the Paris World Exhibit. The Philippines sent Igorot tribals for the exhibits in the United States and Europe. Also, in all of the cases in Asia and the Pacific, at least, colonial military peoples as well as the missionaries from various Christian denominations, carried out the hunting and the “capturing” of peoples in constructed “nations” who live “outside” of it, to be sent for the exhibits.  In the race to be in the “higher” bracket of the Euro-American global color structure, participating and assisting the white world by doing this, was a way for these Asian and African nations to lessen, in their own thinking, the damage via condescending attitudes that they were being seen through by the Europeans and United Statians. The human zoos were researched and written about, through the use of state-sanctioned anthropologists and archeologists, and gave non-white governing elites from nations such as Japan, the Congo, the Philippines, etc., opportunities to gain “credit” as more advanced than animal-people by sending anthropologists to give and record “knowledge.”

In most cases, all of these peoples were abused and mistreated by the colonial rulers of world-consciousness. All of these people, no matter who, were now animals in cages.  They were not allowed to leave the grounds in which they were exhibited.  In the exhibits, there were often mini-villages and plants constructed to mimic the ecologies of the areas from which the indigenous came. Obviously, however, they could not live the way they lived at home. After these exhibits, many of them were left to fend for themselves, let go like turkeys from cages into Europe or the United States. The Chicago World’s Fair, Seattle Exposition, San Francisco, St. Louis World’s Fair, Coney Island’s Luna Park, Brussels, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Oslo, Paris, wherever they were, they were “set free.”  It was known that some committed suicide after their release. Others eventually found a way to get back to their islands and places where they were taken from.

For further reading, here are a few suggestions:


BBC News:  Human Zoos: When Real People were Exhibits:

CBC Show: Human Zoos: A Shocking History of Shame and Exploitation: 

Review: “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island”:

Book: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century:

Article: The Haunting Human Zoo of Paris:

Book: Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage:ëtsch/dp/2330002610/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474485488&sr=1-3&keywords=human+zoo




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