Skip to Content
The Human Zoo: The Final Journey of Calafate  cover photo

The Human Zoo: The Final Journey of Calafate 2011


Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by El Taller Productions
Directed by Hans Mülchi
DVD, color, 88 min.

Jr. High - General Adult
Anthropology, Native Peoples, Civil Rights, South America, History, Social Darwinism, Racism

Date Entered: 03/27/2014

Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

Human Zoo is the phrase used to describe the degrading practice of exhibiting exotic human beings as animals for public entertainment. Many examples of this kind of voyeuristic racism occurred throughout the 19th Century into the 1930s – with indigenous people being put on display at zoos, international exhibitions, and other public venues. Well-known examples include Sara Baartmaan AKA“The Hottentot Venus” and Ota Benga, the pygmy tribesman who was housed with chimpanzees at the Bronx Zoo and promoted as the missing link. But there are many more examples and this documentary highlights four lesser known stories, the fate of 25 individuals from Chilean indigenous groups who were snatched under the direction of German entrepreneur, Carl Hagenbeck, with the endorsement of the governments of both Chile and Germany.

The men, women, and children came from the tribes in Chile’s Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego regions and the conditions of their transport to Europe and their care while on these tours had disastrous consequences. Many got deathly ill en route or soon after yet the tours continued. Soon they began dying. Just one young person, Calafate, a Selk’nam boy, survived the ordeal and returned to his homeland.

The retelling of fates of the Fueguinos is just the beginning of the story though. The film delves deeper into the legacy of the Chilean and European relationships with the tribes. Beginning with the return of Calafate to Chile where he died at a Catholic mission and was buried in an unmarked grave. Current practices and policies of government institutions illustrate how the Human Zoos have been pushed out of memory and the rights of indigenous groups continue to be discounted. This is evidenced by a collective dismissal of responsibility for the acts of their forbears and the tediously slow process institutions create for the return of the skeletons and the belongings of those who died.

This documentary will be of interest to anthropology departments with focus on ethnographic studies and the rights of indigenous populations. It will also be useful for discussions of racism, South American history, and social Darwinism.