Are Pygmies really human?

February 20, 2004

Dear Cecil:

What's the deal with Pygmies? I heard that the Europeans found some in the jungles when they went off exploring, but they also supposedly discovered people with one foot and men 80 feet high, so you can understand my doubt. What I want to know is: Are they real? And are they just humans that have adapted or are they evolved from a separate branch of the protohuman?

Cecil replies:

A letter like yours rouses my anthropological curiosity, Mango. So I'll answer your question, provided you answer one of mine: How does it feel to be the stupidest person on earth?

Just kidding, of course. There are boatloads of folks as ignorant as you, and Pygmies have historically brought a lot of them out of the woodwork. To take just one example, a Pygmy was briefly exhibited in the Bronx Zoo's monkey house in 1906 (more on that below). In The Origin of Races (1962) anthropologist Carleton Coon (sheesh) argues that our Homo erectus ancestors evolved separately into five modern human subspecies — you can see where that idea might lead — and in The Living Races of Man (1965) suggests that Pygmies, at the time numbering around 150,000, are the oldest of the "Congoid" (central African) races. While I don't know that Coon ever explicitly says that Pygmies are a "separate branch of the protohuman," that's the implication — he makes much of their status as hunter-gatherers, for instance. Anyone reviewing Coon's evidence, though, which mostly has to do with superficial physical characteristics, would be a fool to agree. To cut to the chase: Pygmies are definitely real, they're as human as you and me, and yes, they're pretty short.

Now, about that Pygmy in the zoo. His name was Ota Benga, and he was initially brought to Saint Louis in 1904 for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition after being sold as a slave by thugs on the payroll of the Belgian government, who'd butchered his wife and children in the Congo. Colonization of Africa and Asia by Western nations had awakened public interest in the new science of anthropology, and throngs of fairgoers could gawk at indigenous tribespeople from around the globe in replica villages, where they conducted native ceremonies, made crafts, and so on. (One star of the show was Geronimo, the legendary Apache chief, then in his 70s.) The typical fairgoer evidently being but little removed from the swamps himself, Ota and several other Pygmies exhibited with him were subjected to ridicule and abuse — poking them with lighted cigars was reputedly a common experiment. Nonetheless all the Pygmies survived the ordeal and were returned to their homeland. (Most of these details are found in Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, 1992.)

Not long afterward Ota's second wife died of a snakebite, and in 1906 he decided to return to the U.S. in the company of the man who'd first brought him over, an eccentric adventurer named Samuel Verner. Down on his luck after arriving in New York, Verner turned Ota over to the Bronx Zoo, whose equally eccentric director, William Hornaday, decided to put the Pygmy on exhibit at the monkey house — with bones scattered about the enclosure, the better to suggest his bestial nature. (Ota's sharpened teeth also provoked repeated false claims of Pygmy cannibalism.) The young man drew tens of thousands of visitors, who were encouraged to think of him as the missing link between apes and humans. Among other things he was asked to play with an orangutan, a task he apparently enjoyed.

This racist display, passed off as a vindication of Darwinism, incensed the black community, and a delegation of ministers demanded that the exhibition be stopped. Zoo officials compromised, letting Ota have the run of the park during the day, but after he got tired of being mobbed and brandished a stolen knife, Hornaday caved and turned him over to a black orphanage. Ota, by then in his late 20s, learned to speak and read English but otherwise showed little interest in schooling. After a few years he was sent to live in Lynchburg, Virginia, the site of a Baptist seminary where he occasionally took classes. He supported himself with odd jobs and tobacco-factory work, hunting in his off hours and becoming quite a favorite of the local youth.

In 1916, though, homesickness overcame him. Despite the new caps on his teeth, he didn't fit in. After learning that the trip back to Africa was beyond his means, Ota borrowed a revolver and shot himself fatally in the heart. Not to traffic in the obvious, but given his experiences with so-called civilized folk you have to ask: Who here was the savage?

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