“Ape Woman” Buried After 150 Years

Julia Pastrana
Julia Pastrana

An indigenous Mexican woman put on display in Victorian-era Europe because of a rare genetic condition that covered her face in thick hair was buried in her home state on Tuesday in a ceremony that ends one of the best-known episodes from an era when human bodies were treated as collectible specimens.

With her hairy face and body, jutting jaw and other deformities, Julia Pastrana became known as the ‘ape woman’ after she left the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa in 1854, when she was 20, and was taken around the US by showman Theodore Lent, according to a Norwegian commission that studied her case.

She sang and danced for paying audiences, becoming a sensation who also toured Europe and Russia. She and Lent married and had a son, but she developed a fever related to complications from childbirth, and died at 26 along with her baby in 1860 in Moscow. Her remains ended up at the University of Oslo, Norway. After government and private requests to return her body, the university shipped her remains to the state of Sinaloa, where they were laid to rest.

“Julia Pastrana has come home,” said Saul Rubio Ayala, mayor of her hometown of Sinaloa de Leyva. “Julia has been reborn among us. Let us never see another woman be turned into an object of commerce.”

After a Roman Catholic Mass in a local church, Pastrana’s coffin was carried to the town cemetery and buried as a band played traditional music.

The coffin containing the remains of Julia Pastrana arrive in Sinaloa de Leyva on Tuesday.
The coffin containing the remains of Julia Pastrana arrive in Sinaloa de Leyva on Tuesday.

“The story is so important,” said visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata, who campaigned for Pastrana’s return to Sinaloa. “Bringing her back here is a way of recovering it.”

Pastrana’s repatriation is part of a broader movement among museums and academic institutions to send human remains gathered during the European colonisation of Latin America, Africa and Asia back to their countries and tribal lands.

Hundreds of thousands of remains have left cultural institutions in the US, Europe and Australia since the repatriation movement began in the late 1980s, when a new generation of anthropologists, archeologists curators began grappling with the colonial legacies of their disciplines, said Tiffany Jenkins, author of “Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the crisis of cultural authority.”

“They’ve been symbolic, in a way, of making an apology,” Jenkins said.

Institutions in Scandinavian countries have come to the movement somewhat later than their counterparts in other parts of Europe and in the United States, where more than a half-million sets of remains and artifacts have been returned to Native American tribes, she said.

“Norway has become in recent times more uncomfortable about their holding of human remains,” she said.

Mexican Ambassador Martha Barcena Coqui, who is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, formally received Pastrana’s coffin at a February 7 ceremony at Oslo University Hospital in the Norwegian capital before the coffin was flown to Mexico.

“You know I have mixed feelings,” the ambassador said. “In one way, I think she had a very interesting life and maybe she enjoyed visiting and traveling and seeing all the places, but at the same time I think it must have been very sad to travel to these places not as a normal human being but as a matter of exhibition, as something weird to be talked about.”

Jan G. Bjaalie, head of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences at the University of Oslo, said he was happy that they had “finally been able to grant a worthy end to her life.”

“Today, it’s almost incomprehensible that a circus used corpses for entertainment purposes. Hers was used in a way we today would consider to be completely reprehensible,” he said. “It’s important that we now have a clear end to the way she was treated.” [AP]