Bronx, NY

History: Pygmy Humans on Display

Dr. Mozelle Martin

The word "pygmy" is a term in anthropology used to describe the phenotype and endemic short stature of adult men less than 4'11" tall.

In the early 1900s, the Bronx Zoo exhibited an African pygmy human. This attraction drew in huge crowds while also creating all types of controversy. On September 8, 1906, the zoo placed a sign on their monkey hut that read...

"The African Pygmy, "Ota Benga. 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."

When visitors went inside, they saw a young man dressed in white pants and a khaki coat. This petite man was peering at the visitors from behind bars. This young man was from the Batwa tribe of the Belgian Congo. He had no shoes, and his sharply-filed teeth shined bright when he smiled.

At times, Ota would play with Dohong, an orangutan. Other times, Ota would shoot arrows at targets made of hay. Now and then, Ota was allowed out of his cage to buy a soda from the snack bar with money he earned from those taking photographs of him.

Thousands gathered at the cage over the next few days to watch Ota. Eventually, the crowds of people became unmanageable. The clergy members went to the New York Times and complained. Reverend R.S. MacArthur of Harlem's Calvary Baptist Church said, "The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he degrades the African."

What about Ota - how did he feel about all of this?

You see, noticing those who are different from us is nothing new; it didn't just start in 2022. Therefore, Ota probably knew more about white people (muzungu) than they knew about him.

Ota had been on display once before, in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair. Ota and several fellow pygmies recreated their native village as part of the fair's "Living Exhibits" display.

William Hornaday was the zoo's headmaster. He defended the exhibit saying that Ota Benga was being fed well and had not been mistreated. Yet the outrage continued.

Ota was eventually removed and lived with a sympathetic pastor at the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Lynchburg, Virginia. After several years, Ota knew English and worked in a tobacco factory. However, no matter how hard Ota tried, he never fit in. He was unable to adjust to the ways of the muzungu.

In March of 1916, he went into a forest, performed a ceremonial dance around a fire, and then shot himself directly in the heart.

Thanks to technology, you can now read what Ota's friends had to say, and you can watch the documentary about his life.
Ota BengaBBC

Fast forward many years, and, on August 17, 2005, the London Zoo put on an exhibit of homo sapiens for four days. These humans were cared for by experienced zookeepers who offered these individuals various enrichment exercises.

The zoo's temporary human exhibit consisted of three men and five women. Like the Bronx Zoo exhibit 99 years earlier, this triggered an absolute uproar.

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