Human Zoo: The Story of Calafate

In 2002, Chilean historian Christian Baez found a series of photographs of indians from the southern extreme of America exhibited in Paris and other capitals cities of Europe in the, so called, “Human Zoos” in the 1880s.

Four years later, Along with the englishman Peter Mason, he published, a book with half a hundred pictures and revelations about the sufferings of these travelers through a, for them, unknown world. In most cases brought against their will, they had to face abuse, imprisonment, sickness and death. We decided then, to do again their journey to bring this story back from oblivion and find the traces of its protagonists. We started from their homeland, in the middle of the most southern places of the world.

It was about mapuche, tehuelche, selk’nam and kawésqar groups caught and dragged before an european audience that paid to see them in cages. Among them was Calafate, a 9 years old selknam boy. We made again the journey of each group. We found in Araucania, Patagonia and Tierra del fuego some of their descendants.

In Europe they were photographed, their bodies measured and their limbs wanted by scientists. While some of them got sick, others died and others were victims of sexual abuse. Calafate and his group had to bear even jail time in Brussels. We traveled around Rome, Paris, London, Brussels, Hamburg, Berlin and Zurich after the traces of each one of them.

We discovered that their exhibitions were carried out in so significant places such as the Eiffel Tower, the Westminster neighborhood or Léopold Park by the current european Parliament. We not only identified those responsible for their sufferings that included syphilis, measles and smallpox. We also found an authorization from the government of that time for their catch and departure from the chilean territory. We also found their vestiges such us baskets, necklaces and earrings in the warehouses of the Ethnographic Museum of Berlin.

Calafate survived and returned to his land in the Strait of Magellan, where he helped Salesian priest J.M. Beauvoir write a selk’nam dictionary. In 1905, he died of tuberculosis in the Mission of Dawson Island, where we arrived. But others were not as lucky as Calafate was.

The last day of our record in Europe we made a shocking discovery in the department of anthropology at the University of Zurich,. The skeletons of 5 Kawésqar still lie there. 125 years before, they had been exhibited dying in a theater in the city.

Their remains are now claimed by the last survivors of their culture, now a days almost vanished. Meanwhile, along with Chilean government and the University of Zurich we are expectant to a future return.