From Rio (to the Philippines!) With Love

As promised, this week’s post will be about a story from the World Mummy Congress in Rio. That’s right, a story. I moved house this week and only one person suggested topics for the second story…one person, multiple topics. So, this week you get to hear about the talk I wanted to hear, and we can vote on a second topic for next post. I’ll leave a poll at the bottom.

With the unveiling of the Mummipedia Project, which now has its own Facebook page, I’ve been pushing to get non-Egyptian mummies into the limelight for a bit. So, I went to Ron Beckett of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University, co-host of the popular Mummy Road Show series, to talk about his recent work with mummies in the Philippines. They go by a few names, these mummies: the Fire Mummies, Ibaloi mummies. (for the tribe most associated with them), Igorot mummies (for the indigenous group the Ibaloi belong to), Kabayan mummies (for the municipality where they are primarily found), and Benguet mummies (for the province containing Kabayan).

Benguet Province, North Luzon, Philippines - home of the Ibaloi mummies.

Benguet Province, North Luzon, Philippines – home of the Ibaloi mummies. []

Unlike the ancient Egyptians or the Chinchorro, the Ibaloi mummification is living tradition. The Ibaloi were still mummifying their deceased loved ones, right up into the last century, when it was actively discouraged by Christian missionaries. These people, however, still remain connected to the mummies of their ancestors. They make animal sacrifices to them and consult them on matters of importance to the tribe, believing them to contain the spirit of the deceased.

A girl holds a mummy outside Mt. Timbac caves. (Photo by Erik de Castro    REUTERS)

A girl holds a mummy outside Mt. Timbac caves.
(Photo by Erik de Castro REUTERS)

Because of their study over the decade, and because the mummification process was witnessed in living memory, we know a good deal about how Ibaloi mummies were produced. Some stories tell of a concentrated saltwater drink taken just before death, to clear the intestinal tract and avoid spoiling the body. Other versions suggest that the saltwater was poured into the person’s mouth after death, but without the body’s natural digestive motions to move it along it would have been of little preservative use. The body was washed in cold water, wrapped in a death blanket, the textile impressions of which are still visible on the skin of many mummies, and placed in a death chair.

The main preservative effect, however, is the result of smoking the body. Over the course of 40-60 days, the body was supported over a smoky fire lit under the porch of their stilt-house, and treated daily with plant oils. In order to remove moisture from the body, and prevent decomposition, the body was massaged regularly to express fluids, and it had to be checked constantly for insect larvae. The plant oils are still being analysed and may have had some antiseptic and insect repellant properties. The ears and nostrils were also plugged to keep out insects.

It’s interesting, too, that the indigenous peoples of the Philippines don’t smoke meat from game – given that other cultures like the Egyptians were well aware of the preservative effects of their mummification treatments from their ability to preserve fish and meat. Living hand to mouth in a resource rich environment, though, there’s really no need for the Ibaloi to smoke meat. Smoking bodies for mummification is a common practice, however, throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania, and there’s definitely a need for artificial preservation methods to produce a mummy in this region…North Luzon gets about 175 inches of rain a year.

The smoking process is also said to include blowing of tobacco smoke into the mouth and nose, but this step is more ritual than preservative in nature. And the exact order of operations for the mummification process is not quite clear, either, and may have varied over time and in different villages. Once preserved, the bodies were placed into short coffins formed from hollowed out logs and transferred to the caves that dot the sacred mountains of Kabayan, where the microclimate inside the cave keeps the mummy dry and well-preserved.

Ibaloi mummy in its wooden coffin. []

Ibaloi mummies, young and old, in their wooden coffins. []

While not everyone was mummified, the mummies include members of both sexes and a range of ages. It’s easy to see that the mummies are well preserved on the outside, but Ron’s endoscopic examinations showed that the preservation of the internal organs is also excellent. In one case the preservation is so good as to tell the story of a woman’s final day, a difficult birth ending in a primitive C-section and her death…the mummy shows signs of being fully dilated for birth but her uterus has been removed, and the preservation of her intestines demonstrates that the uterus hasn’t simply succumbed to decomposition.

The Ibaloi mummies also show off some of the beautiful tattoo work common to the tribe. The tattoos seen on the mummies suggest that tattooing was associated with status; more tattoos demonstrated higher status. More than just personal adornments and spiritual protection, they are also believed to record rites of passage and possibly even entire personal biographies encoded in socially significant symbols.

Ibaloi mummies, and an excellent view of some of their beautiful batok-style tattoos.

Ibaloi mummies, and an excellent view of some of their beautiful batok-style tattoos. []

I wanted to talk to Ron about these fascinating mummies, not just because they are non-Egyptian or because they are relatively unknown (although both are true), but because the Ibaloi mummies represent an underappreciated, living tradition and one that is both threatened and protected by tourism. The mummies, of course, have become a source of tourist interest in recent years, and this revenue source has been encouraged by the local peoples. The very tourism, however, that encourages the Ibaloi people to protect their traditions leads to damaging handling of the mummies and removal of the mummies from their cave microclimate to be displayed locally or in museums. And any increase in popularity leads to the potential for theft of mummies for sale to private collectors. But at the same time, the mummies have become a symbol of regional identity now, and their study provides the Ibaloi people with a better sense of their own story.

So, I wish Ron and the other researchers (Orlando Abinionof the National Museum of the Philippines; Analyn Salvador-Amoresof the University of the Philippines, and Dario Piombino-Mascaliof the Department of Cultural Heritage and of Sicilian Identity) the best of luck in critically evaluating the sparse literature and the mummies themselves and in showing the people of the Philippines and the world the remarkable and unique cultural heritage they possess.