Real Human Skull Found in Famous Carnegie Museum Diorama

By on January 27, 2017

Restoration of a 150-year-old taxidermy diorama revealed it contains real bones, including an unidentified human skull.
Arab Courier Attacked by Lions taxidermy diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
“Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” taxidermy diorama created in 1876

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh always knew their most famous diorama, the “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions,” had real human teeth. The scene, which depicts a man riding a camel being attacked by two now-extinct Barbary lions, was created in 1867 by brothers Édouard and Jules Verreaux of the Paris-based Maison Verreaux company. In those early days of taxidermy, the bones of skulls of animal specimens were often used in the mount, as is evident in the lions and camel of Carnegie’s diorama, so the use of real teeth in a human mannequin isn’t very surprising.

Despite a persistent urban legend that the courier contained more actual human remains, the museum had no reason to suspect such claims. They hoped a CT scan during the restoration process would finally dispel the rumors.

But that wasn’t the case. The scan revealed the courier’s face was sculpted upon a real, complete human skull. Ethical questions were immediately raised about repatriating the remains for burial, but no identifying records have been found.

This isn’t the first time the work of the Verreaux brothers has been the subject of such macabre controversy. Another one of their specimens was reburied in October of 2000.

The head of the camel rider sculpted on a real human skull
Face sculpted on a real human skull in 1867

Established in 1803, Maison Verreaux was the earliest known supplier of natural history objects, leading expeditions around the world to collect specimens and sell them to various museums and institutions. In 1831, while traveling through Africa in what is now Botswana, Jules witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior. He returned later that night to dig up the grave, taking the skin, skull, and a few other bones from the fresh remains. He mounted the skin and bones on a wire spine, used wooden boards for the shoulder blades, and then stuffed it with newspaper before shipping it back to France with a load of animal mounts.

Complete with raffia, spear, and shield, the warrior was on display in Paris for some time before ending up at the Barcelona world exhibition in 1888. Later he became part of a collection in the Banyoles museum, where he was displayed in a glass case and was known only as El Negro. He remained there until finally being removed in 1997.

Three years later Spain agreed to return the remains to Botswana. The warrior was sent to Madrid to be dismantled. They removed the glass eyes and other non-human additions. The skin, they discovered, had been treated with shoe polish at some point, causing it to crumble. Because of this, only the skull and other bones were returned to Africa for reburial.

El Negro of Banyoles
El Negro on display in a museum in Banyoles

Tracing the skull inside the Carnegie’s camel rider to a specific origin has been deemed highly unlikely, so it may never find its way home. The diorama will be on display in a new, more prominent position, with a new name: “Lion Attacking a Dromedary.”

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