Human Zoo: The Story of Calafate

by John Ahni Schertow on July 6, 2014, Intercontinental Cry



The Human Zoo retraces the disturbing and moving journey of a group of Indigenous Peoples who were taken from their lands in 1881 and sent to Europe where they lived–and, in some cases, died–as part of an exhibition.In 1881, a group of eleven Mapuche, Tehuelche, Selk’nam and Kawésqar Peoples from Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia were taken by German businessmen and sent to Europe where they were soon to be be shown off as “curiosities” at various circuses and fairs across Europe. It was a colonial spectacle of the highest order.In 2002, Chilean historian Christian Baez uncovered a series of photographs of the group. Four years after discovering the photos, Baez, along with the Englishman Peter Mason, published Human Zoos, a book that included many revelations about the wanton exhibits. Their book inspired the creation of The Human Zoo: The Story of Calafate.

The Indigenous Peoples were caught and dragged before a European audience who eagerly paid to see the caged “savages”. Among them was Calafate, a 9-year old Selknam boy. They were photographed and their bodies measured; their limbs sought out by scientists. Some of them got sick, others died and others still were victims of sexual abuse.

The sordid “exhibitions” were carried out in several prominent areas including the Eiffel Tower and Léopold Park, located near the current European Parliament.

Calafate survived and returned to his land in the Strait of Magellan, where he helped a Salesian priest named t J.M. Beauvoir to write a Selk’nam dictionary. In 1905, Calafate passed away from tuberculosis in the Mission of Dawson Island. Others faced a much more grim fate.

In 2008, a shocking discovery was made. Records at the University of Zurich’s Department of Anthropology showed that the remains of five Kawésqar were on site. 125 years earlier, they were exhibited, dying, in a theater in the city.

Their remains were soon claimed by the last survivors of their culture, nowadays almost vanished.

In 2010, some much-needed healing finally took place. The remains of the five Kawésqar were repatriated from Switzerland and handed back to their descendants.

The five Kawésqar are now at rest after receiving a traditional ceremonial burial.



Hans Mülchi

Written by:
Christian Baez and Hans Mülchi

Head of Production:
Margarita Ortega

Photography – Editing:
Enrique Ramírez

Original Music:

Alfredo Ibarra

Asesor Dramaturgic:
Pamela Cantuarias

Eduardo Mülchi, Cecile Castera, Marisol Palma, Teresa Salinas Peter Mason