“Cannibals. Fakirs. Equilibrists. Crime and punishment. Rituals. Slaves, cults and customs. Warriors and weapons. Musicians and mendicants. Dance, dress, undress and body modification. Structures, conveyances, beasts, and more breasts than you can shake a stick at! This is The Secret Museum of Mankind.”
It seems that we humans have always had a gripping fascination with the unknown; with hidden tribes and cultures, people and places. But we don’t always get to visit them, so when a book such as The Secret Museum of Mankind surfaces, curiosities are piqued.
First published in 1942 by elusive Manhattan House publications, the book is something of a mystery. Touted as ‘Five Volumes in One’, even though it was never available as anything but, the 1,000 page gilded book has no authors, no image credits, no copyright, no date and no index. It is purely a compilation of amazing images gathered from around the globe by nameless photographers and anthropologists.
Some regard the book as slightly racist as marketing adverts made no attempts to hide their 1940s viewpoints:
“You see magic and mystery in queer lands where the foot of a white man has rarely tread. “You witness the strangest customs of the red, white, brown, black and yellow races.
“You see Oriental modes of marriage and female slavery in China, Japan, India, etc. Through the intimacy of the camera you witness the exotic habits of every continent and the strangest customs of life and love in America, Europe, etc.”
But the language seems almost naïve in this day and age, so it’s difficult to get up in arms about it, especially when some of the images are of English aristocracy on a hunting spree! It would seem the book has more to do with an insatiable lust for the unknown, an innate curiosity rather than racism. The fact that the advert claims: “You attend their startling rites, their mysterious practices”, makes if more of a quest in discovering and revealing the unfamiliar. How it is worded is more of a reflection of the time, rather than blatant racism.
All that aside, it remains uncanny that no one has stepped up to claim ownership of either the images or content; quite appropriate for a book about the secrets of mankind.
As the book’s phantom author suggests: “You can see with your own eyes the weirdest people on Earth.” Below are a small selection of the 1,000 incredible images available. Enjoy.
All copy pertaining to each image is from the original book, so you can see how the authors thought at the time.
Roasting Initiation of Young Beards into Trial Secrets
As a lad, the aborigine is tortured and mutilated by his elders in the early rites of initiation. When he is a grown man, he undergoes an ordeal of fourteen weeks of endurance, ending with a double roasting. He lies on a log fire for five minutes. The fire is then made hotter, and down he goes for another five minutes, rapidly twisting about to avoid serious burns. At middle-age there is even another severe test.
Strange, Senuous Snake Dance of Amazonian Girls
Human snakes, with women’s limbs and faces, whose flexible and, to all appearance, boneless bodies, daubed with crude colors, bend, contort, writhe, twist, twirl, coil, and wind into every conceivable shape and attitude. The girls are especially trained and specially fed for this strenuous exercise, and their earnings tally with their powers of endurance. The more hideous the contortion, the greater the applause from the spectators.
People to Whom Civilization Means Extinction
Once an independent and formidable race, the Andamanese are now a sickly people dependent on the Government of India. Contact with civilization has proved disastrous to the aborigines, introducing diseases which have decimated them. The Government’s one effort now is to keep alive such as remain and save the race from entire extinction.
Lordly Indolence Beside the Stream of Life
Dignity of presence and of manner the Arab possesses in good measure, but of the dignity of labour he has no idea. He deems it more consistent with his masculine importance to sit in stately indolence among his peers, enjoying the soothing influence of tobacco smoke cooled in the hookah set before him where he watches the activity of the rest of the human swarm.
After the Fray: The Smiling Victor and His Prize
Having successfully repulsed the onslaughts of the attacking parties, the triumphant rider has gained the starting-point with the “ball” in his possession. Here he pauses, his hands clutching the trophy, his short-handled whip — a valued article, no whit less formidable than the Cossack nagaika — between his teeth, while he is vociferously acclaimed victor, and is rewarded with a silk handkerchief.
Balling Cotton in a Settlement of Venezulan Aborigines
The settlements of the Waiomgomo Indians, scattered about the vast dense forests of Guayana, are sometimes little more than a collection of miserable huts consisting chiefly of thatched roofs on supports, but providing, nevertheless, shelters for numbers of primitive creatures to whom they stand for home. Hand-made hammocks, earthenware pots, and calabashes lie promiscuously about the earth floor.
Hardy Ascetic Piously Indifferent to Couch of Nails
Many religious codes, and especially those of India, have advocated or enjoined the mortifying of the flesh and its resulting subjection to the spirit. All over this land of many faiths one may see yogis, fakirs, and all varieties of the mendicant religious, practising with every vigour what their leaders have preached. Marriage, speech, and cleanliness are among the popular renunciations, and in this photograph we have another example of self-suppression. Whatever may be said of other methods it is abundantly evident that this one has its points.
Burmans smoke as soon as they can toddle. In the palace, this small princess’s home, the cheroots are rolled in the white inner bark of the betel tree.
Camel carriage Surviving the Incursion of the Motor Car
While the motor-car, the taxicab, and the Cairo-Luxor train de luxe are familiar institutions in Egypt to-day, the camel carriage, a kind of palanquin on poles borne between two camels, may sometimes be seen in Cairo as a private conveyance, or, gorgeous in its silver and ivory ornamentation, a feature of the procession of a pilgrim on his return from Mecca.
How Exectutions Were Carried Out In Congoland (Mock Up)
The decorated witch doctor, standing behind the criminal, has first to destroy his soul, in this mock execution, or otherwise prevent him from haunting the village. Then the players of the wooden tom-toms start a chant of cursings as the knifeman approaches. The prop, under the bent sapling, to which the prisoner is strung, is knocked aside, increasing the tension. The knifeman strikes through the neck, and the released sapling casts away the severed head.
“The Twelfth”: Grouse Shooting on an English Moor
Shooting driven grouse from butts has been a favourite form of sport since about 1850, but was practised for some fifty years before that. A line of butts is constructed, where possible in depressions in the ground to conceal them from the birds, and in these the shooters take their place, remaining motionless until the driven birds are coming at them, when they throw up their guns and fire.
Fantastic Dress of the Notorious Straw Boys
During the early years of the nineteenth century sections of Ireland were overrun by one of the many terrorist gangs that have from time to time existed there, known, from their peculiar but effective grass masks, as the Straw Boys. Through these masks they could see without being recognized, and their habit of dressing as women added to their grotesque appearance.
Good Wizard of the Kakadu Tribe Sucking Evil Magic from Sick Man
All maladies are thought by the aborigines to be caused by hostile witchcraft, usually an invisible poison bone or stick, “sent” by an enemy. For curative treatment, the patient lies down, and a tribal wizard gazes fixedly at him, thus projecting unseen crystals of power into him. Then, stretched upon the sufferer, he massages him, and, with much effort, sucks the poison bone out of him, invisibly, bit by bit.
Woe to the Vanquished! The Victors’ Dance of Triumph
This Kayan woman is dancing with a recently-taken enemy’s head. The hair has been removed to adorn the shield and sword-handle of the warrior who killed the man, and now stands proudly before his rejoicing mate. It is customary for the victorious warriors to spend the first night after their return encamped before the house, when the women dance with the freshly-captured heads, and the whole village rejoices.
Macusi Housewife Busy in Her Light and Airy Home
Native architects in British Guiana pay as little attention to privacy as to sanitation and hygiene. Walls amount to nothing more than lattice work of widest mesh and windows are superfluous. All the housewife asks for is a sufficiency of utensils of wood or gourds, baskets which she plaits herself, and a heavy wooden mortar in which, with a pole for pestle, she can pound fruit and grain
Religious Ecstasy Running Riot in the Fast of Ramadan
Fanaticism goes to extremes among some Mahomedans, and extraordinary scenes are enacted on the occasion of certain religious ceremonies. The last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan are specially sacred, and on the concluding day the wildest fanatics gash themselves with knives in token of mourning, and inflict the goriest tortures of flagellation on their own bodies.
Three Trousered Beauties of Scutari
In Scutari town, where Moslem and Christian Albanians mingle, all townswomen wear large, loose, Turkish trousers of silk or cloth. Silken also are their long-sleeved chemises, over which are embroidered boleros, with a huge many-coloured sash. Outdoors, all hide their faces in robes that fall from head to knee and serve the purpose of the Moslem veil.
Modern Troglodytes at Home in Tenerife
Teneriffe is the largest of the Canary Islands, a volcanically-formed archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. It has a rich, though rugged, surface, crowned by the volcanic Pico de Teyde, over 12,000 feet high. Some of the poorest inhabitants make their homes in strange cavern-like houses bored in the rock-formation — a genial climate making this primitive mode of living far from unpleasant.
Crowned Shepherdess and Her Straw-Built Cot
She is already earning money, as her silver crown and belt jewelry show, but she has yet to cover her toque with silver coins. By her quaint face wrapping she seems a Moslem girl, but perhaps she is a Christian, and can explain it as a defence against evil spirits. In any case, she can soon be purchased for marriage by one of her tribesmen in the hills above Valona
Warraw Indian Bucks Playing their Shield Game
The Warraw are a numerically small tribe settled near the mouth of the Barima river in the north of British Guiana. They keep apart from the white population and from the negroes of the woods, descendents of slaves who escaped from the plantations and took to wild life in the forests of the interior.
Huge thanks to Ian Macky who painstakingly transcribed and transferred the contents of the book for online viewing. ‘Big up’ to the man.
We’ll even throw in a free album.