Fire Mummies of the Philippines

Fire Mummies of the Philippines

Life and death have always fascinated human beings as the ultimate mystery of the universe. Cultures throughout the world have speculated about these issues, and constructed rituals and religions around them. The Ibaloi tribe of Kabayan is no different. Like Egyptians, and several other ancient cultures, this tribe mummified the dead from their elite social sectors. This was done on the assumption that these persons had the ability to live after death, much like the Egyptian dynasties. However, one fundamental difference between the Ibaloi tribe and the Egyptians is the method of embalming. The Ibaloi for example used a method that preserved the whole body of the deceased, where the internal organs were not removed, but dried within the body. This method earned the Mummies the title of "Fire Mummies." The are also known as the Kabayan mummies, after the town from which the ritual originates.

It is important to recognize that these mummies are not only important in terms of their historical and tourist value, but also in terms of their cultural value. The Ibaloi tribe still exists within the Kabayan region and conduct rituals at the burial cave. There is therefore the continuous necessity to regulate tourism in such as way as to compromise the need to capitalize on tourism and to protect the heritage and culture of the Ibaloi. The challenge remains today, as the mummies are in continual danger from vandals as well as environmental elements such as insects, water, and general decay.

Where were the Mummies found

The fire mummies of the Philippines were found in caves in the Kabayan area; hence the mummies are also known as the "Kabayan" mummies. The town is in the Benguet province of the Philippines, north of Manila. The mummies were well preserved and found originally in the Timbank, Bangao, Tnongchol, Naapay and Opdas caves (Deem, 2010).

Specifically, the discovery was the result of industrial activity in the forests north of Manila (World Monuments Fund, 2010). Loggers discovered mummified remains, along with hundreds of coffins and skulls. The caves remained untouched until the 19th century, after which their status as National Cultural Treasure did very little to protect them from vandalism.

One of the mummies was known as the "smiling mummy" because all its teeth were intact (Deem, 2010).

When the mummies were discovered in the early 20th century, many were stolen, because the caves were generally unprotected. Because of this, Monument Watch, a non-profit organization for the protection and preservation of monument sites, has declared the site as one of the most 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world (Deem, 2010).

When were they made

According to Deem (2010), this is an area of considerable scientific contention. One sector of scientists, for example, believe that the Ibaloi made the mummies between 1200 and 1500 a.D. In five towns in the Benguet province. Others place the mummification practice found here at around 2000 B.C. The practice died out during the 1500s, when the Spanish colonized the Philippines and discouraged mummification.

How they were made

Although tests and new discoveries continue to change the current paradigms surrounding the fire mummies, it appears that only tribal leaders were mummified. Interestingly, the ideal was to begin the mummification process shortly before the death of a person. He would be given a very salty drink to begin the process. When death had occurred, the body was washed with fresh water and placed in a chair over a glowing fire. Hence the title "fire mummy." The high "death chair" was constructed on a ladder facing the traditional stilt house of the Ibalois. The body was then tied to the chair with a scarf and covered with a death blanket. The fire would dry the fluid still remaining in the body.

According to OWF (2008), a jar was also placed under a chair to collect these fluids. The body would then be placed in the sun to speed the drying process. When this was completed, the outer skin was removed, and the internal organs were dried. Interestingly, the process of skin removal did not affect the color of the mummy's skin or any permanent markings, such as tattoos. Even today, some of the mummies feature many tattoos. This is because only the outer layer of the skin was removed (Condillera Blogger, 2007).

To dry the inside of the body, as well as its internal organs, Tobacco smoke was blown into the mouth of the corpse (Deem, 2010). The final part of the process was to rub herbs onto the body. This would involve the juice of pounded leaves, such as the diwdiw, besodak, kapany and native guava (Condillera Blog, 2007).

On the eve of the last day before burial, the family of the deceased would perform a ritual known as the sabusab. This involved slaughtering chickens and offering them to the dead. Like the Egyptians, the Ibaloi believed that the elders lived on after death; making it essential to preserve their mortal remains.

Investigators today say that the mummification process could have lasted many weeks, or even months, before the mummy was complete. According to some, the process could have taken as long as two years (OWF, 2008). After the mummification process, the mummy would then be taken to one of the caves to bury in a pinewood coffin. Some of the caves were man made, and dug out from solid rock, while natural caves could also serve as burial places for the mummies.

According to local experts, the documentation of this process was generally lost after the colonization of the area. Colonizers discouraged mummification, because it was considered a "health hazard." What is known about the process today has been handed down by oral tradition (Condillera Blogger, 2007).

Number of Mummies

According to Deem (2010), it is believed that there are 100 mummies to be found in the more than 200 caves of Benguet. Currently, a comprehensive survey and documentation of about 50 Kabayan caves revealed 28 human mummies. How many are left to be discovered remains the subject of considerable speculation, however, and only time will tell how many are left for scientists to unearth.

What sets them Apart

The mummies have been declared a National Treasure of the Philippines (Deem, 2010). One of the stolen mummies, Apo Annu, was recently returned to the National Museum of the Philippines. This tribal leader in the Benguet province died about 500 years ago. His mummy was stolen between 1918 and 1920 by a Christian pastor. It was used as a sideshow in a Manila circus, and was subsequently sold and resold many times until 1984, when an antiques collector acquired and donated it to the National Museum.

An interesting feature of the Apo Annu mummy was that he was heavily tattooed. The mummy was in a sitting position, with his arms held up to his face, almost like a man in prayer.

While it was stolen, some residents believed that the droughts, earthquakes and famine plaguing the region was a direct result of the mummy being looted. Whether or not this is true, the local government built a fence around Apo Annu's final resting place in the cave to ensure that he will remain in his place this time around. The government also offered to pay for additional security measures, should this prove necessary.

Significance and Protection

The Ibaloi tribe was the only tribe in the Philippines known to have practiced mummification (Baguio Insider, 2009). This tribe was the dominant ethno-linguistic group of the area, and had a long tradition of mummification prior to their colonization by the Spanish (OWF, 2008). The town of Kabayan is also recognized as the cultural center of the Ibaloi; hence the title of "Kabayan mummies" (Gorospe, 2010).

Currently, the mummies are on display in the caves where they were found. Officials are aware of 50 to 80 additional mummies and their locations, but are keeping this a secret for their protection (Deem, 2010). There is also a small museum in Kabayan that could be involved in displaying the mummies.

At locations that can be accessed by the public, security measures include fences and guards to protect the mummies from thieves and desecrators.

The mummies are important in terms of their status as a national treasure for the Philippines. They serve not only as an exemplary part of Philippine culture and history, but also as a tourist attraction that contributes to the economy of the country. The caves are also something of a phenomenon. In the municipality of Kabayan alone, more than 200 manmade burial caves have been identified, although the majority of these no longer contain the grim contents they housed centuries ago (Asiarooms.com, 2010).

The importance of the mummies is not only nationally applicable, but also specifically to the still-existing Ibaloi tribe. Although they no loner practice mummification, the Kabayan caves are still sacred for the tribe. They use the area of religious and social rituals.

It is therefore considered important to not…