Human Zoos: Invention of the “Savage”

Human zoos, also called ethnological expositions, were 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century public exhibitions of humans, usually in a so-called natural or primitive state. The displays often emphasized the cultural differences between Europeans of Western civilization and non-European peoples or with other Europeans who practiced a lifestyle deemed more primitive. This is the story of women, men and children from Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and in some cases from Europe who were displayed in the West and elsewhere at universal and colonial exhibitions and fairs, circuses, cabarets, zoos, as well as in traveling “exotic” villages. For almost five centuries (1490-1960) these people were exhibited as “savages” in Europe, the United States and Japan. The shows were impressive “spectacles” or “theater” with performers, stage sets, impresarios and riveting storylines.

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