Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and gained widespread acceptance circa the 1870s, although speculation on the topic, including competing theories by the likes of Jean-Baptiste LaMarcke and Herbert Spencer, had emerged decades earlier.
Always one to hitch his wagon to a coming thing, in 1860, P.T. Barnum began presenting Zip the Pinhead, the first of countless “missing links”. Scientific curiosities, real or contrived, had always been a cornerstone of his American Museum. While Barnum offered many Americans their first glimpse of a live whale (a legitimate, educational thrill), he also fobbed off on the public the Feejee Mermaid, which was just a monkey torso sewn to a fish tail. The “Missing Link” concept more resembled the latter. It was based on a faulty understanding of Darwin’s theory (one that plenty of people sadly perpetuate to this day): the idea that modern humans evolved from modern apes. That being the case (goes the reasoning), granted you believe in the truth of evolution, then somewhere between these apes and human beings there must lie a sort of intermediate species, half-man and half-ape.
Actually science says that modern men and apes have evolved along separate lines for millions of years, branching off from common ancestors many ages ago. DNA tells us that our closest relatives among the great apes are the chimps and bonobos, and we diverged from them about 7 million years ago. Not only is there nothing “between” us — only “preceding” us — but these events happened towards the end of the Miocene Epoch. In short, the idea of finding a “missing link”, even in the most remote jungles of the 19th century, is roughly in a league with belief in Bigfoot. (For those who believe in Bigfoot, my insincere apologies).
Still, the public ate it up, it fired their imaginations, and so Barnum continued to pour it on, exhibiting such other unfortunates (usually retarded adults) as The Wild Men of Borneo, the Aztec Children, and the Wild Australian children. Some of Barnum’s competitors toured the country with exhibits such as Julia Pastrana and Krao, the Missing Link.
In time, mostly due to the education of the public, the implication that these people were half-ape was dropped, although exhibitions of anthropological and ethnographic interest continued to be popular well into the 20th century. Not just places like Coney Island, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Robert Ripley’s Odditorium (all of which exhibited live humans from other cultures). But even such institutions as the University of California, which exhibited Ishi, “North America’s last wild Indian”, from 1911 to 1916. Ringling Brothers and other sideshows were still exhibiting “Ubangis” and other tribes people into the 1930s.