Secret Museum of Mankind

What a mysterious and fantastical book. This hefty softcover is a facsimile collection of thousands of exotic and sensational photographs dating from around the turn of the century when news of any sort from far away lands was rare. It’s sort of a combination of early uncensored National Geographic and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Reproduced without a known author, or copyright, or even authentication of the captions, it was for many years a “secret” underground publication. And for pure gawking pleasures it still can’t be beat. Cannibals, executioners, and fakirs, oh my! Toolwise, it serves as a mighty sourcebook of amazing costumes, body modifications and hairdos, architectural novelties, and extinct strange rituals. (I’m convinced science fiction film directors mine this for alien worlds.) I like to think of this book as the best one volume catalog of cultural diversity on Earth. For the most part these societies are long gone, and remain only in rare books like this one. It’s a super bargain at ~$25.

 

Secret Museum of Mankind
David Stiffler
1999, 576 pages
$42 (used)

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

As a young boy from a largely white middle-class neighborhood, I held my breath as I incredulously leafed through the tinted pages of the most fantastic book I had ever opened. The book was in tatters, for it had passed through many hands and a few generations. I believe the book came to me from my grandfather, a lay pastor and naturalist healer. This, my original copy of the book, was somewhat defaced and edited by someone who took offense at the naked body, indicated by the way each illustration depicting an exposed female African, Asian, or Polynesian nipple was scratched out with a penknife. Aside from such human imagery, the book was full of visuals depicting practices and ceremonies rarely witnessed by Westerners and even less commonly understood, hence the appropriate use of the word secret in the title. Here in this book I saw tribal maidens, executioners whose swords had decapitated 20,000 prisoners, medicine men, chiefs, warriors, hula girls, Dutch girls in their tulip hats, rickshaw drivers, fakirs and Moslem women veiled in purdah, “savage” races, cannibals, tattooed faces and cicatrization, holy penitents, gauchos, snake charmers, nomads, gypsies, crude medical practices, strange initiation rites, matadors, Eskimos, and more all laid out as, the anonymous author put it, “five volumes in one.”

It was at this point that I realized my worldview and perspective of life and peoples of the world were extremely limited. Viewing this book really caused me to examine my own surroundings and environment, and I must admit it caused a certain degree of alienation from my peers and challenged my own upbringing and values. I could no longer believe that Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was the whole world when the door to the “secret” world had been opened for me.

*

This detailed face pattern in ridged flesh is known as a “full rasp.” The man could only be photographed asleep; he fled the camera as witchcraft.

*

Camel-Borne Palanquins for Arab Women in the Desert
Arab women of the better class travel in palanquins resembling square tents erected on the humps of camels. Gaudy striped cloth is stretched round the framework of the tent, giving an odd cage-like effect to the contrivance viewed from a little distance. When on the move over the desert, servant women walk beside the camels, and men on horseback guard the caravan.

*

Cage of Death in a Lonely Pass
If one could peek through the bars of this cage there would be seen a little rubbish on the floor of it. That rubbish was once a man caught thieving in the Lataband Pass from Afghanistan into Bokhara. He was placed in this iron cage at the top of the pole and left to die of hunger. These man-cages are a favourite Afghan method of dealing with criminals.

*

Quaint Freaks of Fashion That Please Mongolian Wives
Padded shoulders with chequered sleeves of grotesque length are the salient points of these ladies’ strange dress, which shows how world-wide is the desire for adornment extraordinary. But the crowning effect is produced by the winged headdress through which the hair is threaded, hanging pendent from the extremities. Shoes with pointed toes complete this truly surprising accoutrement.

*

Martial Dignity in Old-Time Splendid Panoply
Decoration ran riot in the headgear of officers of the old Korean army, whose service was indeed rather ornamental than military. This melancholy-looking individual, huddled up with the correct air of aristocratic helplessness on his palanquin, is a general officer. The palanquin is fitted with a single wheel which relieves the bearers of something of the weight of so much dignity.