Kabayan and its Centuries-old Mummies

Kabayan Mummies by en.wikipedia.org
Kabayan Mummies – Photo Credit – en.wikipedia.org


Kabayan is one of the oldest towns in Benguet, situated in a wide valley surrounded by mountains in Northern Luzon. It was recognized as the center of Ibaloi culture.


Out of several tribes in this area, the Ibaloi tribe was the only people to practice mummification as a way of preserving their dead hence the mummies were called Ibaloi mummies or Kabayan mummies. They can be found in a network of mostly protected caves that are  part of the Cordillera mountain range. They are either on the cliffside near the entrance to man-made caves or inside caves scattered around the villages.


Well-preserved human mummies were initially found in Timbak Cave, Bangao Cave, Tenongchol cave, Naapay and Opdas. However, when the mummies were rediscovered in the early 1900s, many were stolen and later on even the ‘smiling mummy’ disappeared. It was known to have an intact set of teeth.


They have existed for centuries even before the Spaniards came. Some believe that the mummies were created between 1200 and 1500 AD in the Benguet province of the Philippines and buried in caves. Others believe that the mummifications practices date to 2000 BC. When the Spanish colonized the Philippines in the 1500s, they discouraged the making of mummies and the practice was discontinued.


Not everyone was mummified. Mostly those in the higher social classes or tribal leaders were. Mummification was not practiced anywhere else except in this region. Unlike the mummies of Ancient Egypt, where they were wrapped in cloth, mummies here were naked with various tattoo marks still visible on their leathery skin and were in a fetal position. It appears that only tribal leaders were mummified, though this theory may change with more discoveries.


Mummification was a long ritual and the Ibaloi had a very strong belief in the ritual. The body could be sun-dried or smoked for 60 days or more. The wealthy people sometimes did it for as long as two years. The process could begin even when the person was not dead yet. When a person was about to die, he was given a salty drink to start the process. Then, after death, the deceased was immediately washed and strapped in a sitting position to a wooden chair called sangadil or chair of death that was set over a glowing fire. That’s why they were all in a seated position. If they were sitting on fire, they could be burned into ashes. The purpose was not to burn the body but to dry or drain the fluids by exposing it to external heat. Tobacco smoke was then blown into the person’s mouth to dry the inside of the body and internal organs.


Finally, the body was treated with indigenous herbs and oils. The drying/smoking process would have lasted many weeks and perhaps a number of months before the mummy was finished. Then the mummified body was placed in a capsule-shaped coffin carved from tree trunks and taken to a cave in high cliffs or in a niche from solid rock for burial.


Complex rituals and animal sacrifices were practiced during curing and burial and the meat from the animal sacrifices passed to the entire assemblage. The officiating Benguet tribal priest called mambunong said the incantation to the creator, Kabunyian and to a folklore hero, Lumawig.


Mummification was part of the Ibaloi tribe culture. Under President Decree No. 374, the Kabayan Mummies were proclaimed “Philippine National Cultural Treasures” which mandates their protection. The National Museum of the Philippines is conducting a comprehensive survey and documentation of around 50 caves around Kabayan. Research and studies on the preservation and development of the mummy sites is also being undertaken by the conservators of the National Museum of the Philippines. The caves containing the mummies have been designated as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world by Monument Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of important monuments and sites.


Source: Bahala Na (Come What May)



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