Photo: Facebook/Carnegie Museum

For more than a century, the taxidermy diorama “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” has stood in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Depicting a man on camelback fending off Barbary lions, the bizarre display has intrigued—and repulsed—generations of visitors. Throughout all those years, however, the piece managed to keep a disturbing secret.

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During a restoration that began last year, a CT scan revealed that—like its camel and lions—the display’s rider was constructed with “natural” materials. In this case, an actual human skull.

“The mannequin is purely a mannequin … except for the skull,” conservator Gretchen Anderson told The Tribune-Review. “It’s why the human face is as accurate as it is.”

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Created by French taxidermist Edouard Verreaux in 1867 and acquired by industrialist Andrew Carnegie for the museum in 1899, “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” was long known to contain real human teeth. As recently as last summer, however, staffers believed it contained no other human remains.

As strange as the museum’s discovery might be, it isn’t entirely without precedent. In 1831, Verreaux and his brother Jules notoriously taxidermied an African San person known as “El Negro of Banyoles” whose body was on display at Spain’s Darder Museum until 1997.

Normally, the museum would consider returning the remains to their country of origin for burial (as “El Negro” was in 2000), but staffers say that even DNA testing would provide insufficient information.

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“We cannot repatriate with the information we have now,” said Anderson, “but are hoping to continue our research, particularly with French archival resources, which have given us a number of new insights about the history of the diorama.”

[The Tribune Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]