Mummies in the Philippines

An unusual post by comparison, because it’s not based on a news report. I managed to catch the Fire Mummies of the Philippines that was showing on Discovery Channel (Asia) over these last two days which led me to do a web search about the mummies in Philippines, especially since there isn’t usually a lot of news on the archaeology of Philippines.

The mummies of Kabayan, in the Benguet Province, part of the Cordillera mountain range in North Luzon (the main island of the Philippines) is home to the Ibaloi people, who have a tradition of mummifying their dead between the 13th and 16th century. This practice was stopped by Spanish colonisers who introduced Christianity and the practice of burial.

Like most mummy-making processes, the bodies are preserved by dehydration. The dying or dead person is made to ingest salt water to dry the internal organs. Upon death, the body is sat above a small fire to expel fluids from the body. Finally, the body is sun-dried with the help of the community and placed in a prepared pinewood coffin. The coffins are interred in burial caves carved into the rock through the mountain. The entire process takes approximately two years.

Over 200 caves have been identified, and 15 of them contain human remains. It is suspected that the locals know of the existence of more mummies, but are unwilling to disclose their location because of widespread looting that has taken place. Looting for skulls and teeth by private collectors overseas have led to massive destruction of many of the bodies, while some locals go after fingers and fingernails as talismans for good luck. There simply isn’t enough funding to go around to protect these sites, even after having been flagged by Monument Watch.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

2 thoughts on “Mummies in the Philippines”

  1. I manged to see this Discovery programme on M’sian TV last night. Fascinating. But its a shame that they cannot protect the cave sites more. As the researcher Orlando said, he returns every month to the caves,but he doesn’t know if they have been raided in the meantime.

  2. Hi there,

    Would you please kindly advise if you remember the title or any important works or books regarding this topic?

    I am from Ibaloi tribe from my mother’s side; I grew up on these mountains when I was little….. Whilst I am now living in Australia, the memories and the strong blood runs in me and I am quite sad when I heard about this looting a few years ago. Googling is not bringing much information, but I hope I can find this documentary with your help.

    I recently went back home to attend the ceremony of honoring my grandfather, uncle and great grandmother’s death – the ceremonies are still the same, and have not changed for years. How I was the centuries of history in our ancestors have not been violated andn touched through greed…but there is still our culture left and the wonderful people.

    Many thanks for your help, if any.

    Cheers,
    G.-

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