Mummification of the dead is a well-known practice from ancient times, particularly as it relates to the Egyptians and their heavily bandaged and embalmed corpses. However, the discovery of some carefully preserved remains in the Philippines has brought a different type of mummy to light—the fire mummy. These ancient bodies have recently given researchers new insight into a unique mummification process never seen before and a keener sense of the compelling tribal culture who prepared them. When the caves of the fire mummies were first discovered in the early 20th-century and left generally unprotected, the discoveries inside were soon plundered, causing the Filipino government to become increasingly secretive about their location. The caves are now considered one of the most endangered sites in the world and can only be visited by those in the know.
The indigenous people of Kabayan, also known as the Ibaloi, live in the secluded mountains of the northern Philippines. Their land consists of terraced rice fields with rolling green hills, and they are generally friendly and hardworking people—all very normal, except they literally live in the shadow of the dead. On Mt. Timbac, which hovers above their fields, lie hundreds of their ancient ancestors’ smoked bodies dating back as far as 1200.
The fire mummies are not easy to find because the local villagers and the Filipino government have worked hard to protect the precious site. The ancient remains can be found only after a five-hour car ride up the mountains to Kabayan, followed by another five-hour hike up a dizzying series of stone steps. Secure fences now cover the entrances to the caves where the mummies lie perfectly preserved in their original coffins.
There are many characteristics of the fire mummy that differ from those preserved with regular old bandages and embalming fluid. For starters, the first step of the preservation process required the dying person to help out by drinking a salty beverage that would slowly dehydrate their body. Once the person had finally passed, the rest of the elaborate process could begin, sometimes taking up to several weeks or months to complete.
The corpse was thoroughly washed according to custom and then placed above a heat source in a seated position. This folding of the body allowed the Ibaloi to fit more bodies into the cramped caves. The corpses themselves were never exposed to actual fire but were just “smoked” like a piece of meat above smoldering kindling, hot enough to remove all the fluids from the body and leave it leathery and dry.
Once the body was fully smoked the outside, the Ibaloi would then set to work on dehydrating the inside of the corpse as well. They did this in an unusual way by blowing tobacco smoke into the corpse’s mouth to dry the internal organs. At this point, the fully preserved body was rubbed down with herbs and placed neatly in a small wooden coffin inside one of the hidden caves.
When the Spanish, led by the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan, invaded and colonized the Philippines around the year 1500, the smoking mummification process, along with a great deal of other indigenous practices, began to die out. Processing the dead assumed a more European style and elaborate mummification was regarded as too archaic and tribal.
Despite their obvious age and fragility, several of the Kabayan fire mummies were actually stolen in 2000 and sold in Europe for a great deal of money. In fact, it became such a problem for the country that the Department of Foreign Affairs had to step in and ensure as many remains as possible be returned to their original resting place. Apparently being a mummy thief was a thing. In 2004, eight mummies were finally restored to their home in the caves and proper death rituals were held, but many still remain missing.Where they are, nobody knows.
One notable disappearance occurred around 1919 when the intricately tattooed body of an important tribal leader named Apo Annu, who had died 500 years before was stolen from his coffin. As was later discovered, the body had been taken by a Filipino pastor visiting the site and had wound up as part of a sideshow in a Manila circus. The mummy then changed hands a number of times, until 1984 when it was finally donated to the national Museum by an antique collector. The museum immediately notified the government, and the body has since been restored to its original resting place. Haunting averted!
As is the case with most ancient burial sites, the caves are steeped in a certain amount of superstition. Given the amount of looting that has occurred in the sacred caves, many residents of the area believe the region has been cursed by droughts, earthquakes, and famine as a result of Apo Annu’s desecration. To ensure this valuable figure stays put, the government has erected a special fence around his resting place and have offered to pay for all necessary safety precautions.
One other fascinating thing about the Kabayan fire mummies is, unlike other ancient discoveries, the remains have largely been untouched from their original resting position. King Tut certainly can’t say that. They remain protected by the government and the indigenous people who revere them as their direct ancestors. If you secure a local guide before ascending the mountain, it’s possible to unlock the forbidding gates and enter a genuine burial site from thousands of years ago, a site where the mummies continue to serve as a perfectly preserved piece of history.
And the rest is history.