The ghoulish yet expertly preserved cave mummies of this mountainous town are as mystifying today as they were when they were first rediscovered by their Ibaloi descendants at the turn of the last century.
“What we know is that not everyone can be mummified. One has to be worthy of mummification. You either have to be a tribe leader or be very rich,” a local historian pointed out.
Although the Kabayan mummies have been an integral part of local residents’ culture for literally hundreds of years – maybe even a millennia – town historian Kenneth Kelcho feels that much could still be learned from studying the mummified remains of the Ibaloi tribes people.
For one thing, Kelcho, 41, said that the exact number of “fire mummies” (so-called because of the preservation techniques used on the bodies) in the region is unknown.
“It could be 75 or it could be over 200,” he estimated. Kelcho named the man-made caves of Timbac, Tinongshol, and Pongasan as among the more popular burial sites frequented by tourists, although “more caves along the mountainside that remain unexplored could yield more mummies.”
Apparently, dating the mummies is also a contentious matter. While carbon-dating by the Tokyo University on the bones within the Opdas Mass Burial Cave in the Kabayan poblacion revealed an age of 500 to 1,000 years, the cave itself currently does not house any mummified remains.
A piercing stare from the neatly arranged row of some 300 human skulls greets the visitors of the Opdas cave although these bones have shown signs of deterioration over the years due to water seepage.
Kelcho said the belief is that the highlanders began to mummify their dead decades or even centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards, but as to exactly when, nobody knows for sure.
Kelcho said that his great great grandfather, a tribe leader named “Kibara,” was honored through mummification and is said to have been buried in Opdas before the burial cave underwent extensive renovation in 1991.
Only For The Worthy
According to Kelcho, the nobility of a dead Ibaloi is displayed on the carvings on the wooden coffins they are encased in. “The more decorated the coffin, the more important the person inside it.”
He said foreign experts have noted similarities between Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Ibaloi carvings, but unlike the former, there is no official way to translate the latter. This has not stopped a culture crusader like Kelcho to deduce the meaning of coffin markings.
For example, he reckoned that the tomb on display at the provincial museum belonged to a “great warrior and hunter,” based on the upside-down images of a human figure and beast carved on the tomb’s side.
Incidentally, the small museum holds the sole Ibaloi mummy on public display, that of a middle-aged tattooed female from Pongasan cave whose “face” was reconstructed by a forensic expert from the United States in the year 2000.
The facial reconstruction, as well as artifacts and other relics of the Kabayan mummies like hunting and cooking tools can also be found at the museum.
Smoked And Dried
As a local, Kelcho takes pride that in the fact that the Ibaloi was named by the National Geographic as one of the only three people in the world to purposely mummify their dead, the others being the ancient Egyptians and the Inca of Peru.
He reckoned that the preservation technique of his Ibaloi ancestors, which employed no chemical intervention, was superior to the way that the Egyptians preserved the bodies of their dead pharaohs.
“It’s a source of pride for me that these people (Ibaloi), who were said to be barbaric and treated as second-class citizens by the Spaniards, were basically scientists,” noted the historian.
Kelcho said that immediately upon death, the mummification-worthy Ibaloi is made to sit on an “asal” (death chair) and exposed to a glowing fire. The heat would dry the body out while the chair would help create the familiar “seated position” that all Kabayan mummies have.
Tobacco smoke was then blown into the person’s mouth to further help the drying process, especially with the internal organs. Finally, herbs are rubbed on the body.
Kelcho said the entire drying and smoking process could take weeks, even months to complete. A key step in the process is to have the dying person ingest a salty drink, as salt draws out moisture.
“Normally, the mummies in a burial cave belong to just one clan. They just add the bodies. The larger tombs can hold an entire family of mummies,” he added.
Another mystery surrounding the burial activity is how the primitive tribe people were able to burrow a network of caves within Tionongshol, which is basically a huge slab of solid rock.
Final Resting Place?
Addressing a common misconception by foreign tourists, Kelcho explained that the local practice of mummification is rooted in ancestor guidance rather than ancestor worship.
“They (mummies) are placed high in the mountains so that they may serve as guidance for the people below. The caves serve as their final resting place, and as such, they are not meant to be disturbed,” he stressed.
Unfortunately, not all Kabayan mummies have been left in peace. “Sadly there are incidents of looting. Some burial sites have empty coffins, which is indicative of looting. Vandalism (on the cave and coffins themselves) are beyond our control.”
Kelcho cited the case of a famous Kabayan mummy, “Apo Annu”, who during his time was a tribal leader and noted warrior. Stolen from his burial cave in the town of Natubling sometime before 1920, Apo Annu changed hands numerous times before being donated to the National Museum in 1984.
The intricately-tattooed mummy has since been returned to Benguet. “We’re still waiting for other stolen mummies to be returned to us,” he said.
The coffins at Tionongshol are victims of desecration. Some coffins, particularly those facing the niches or holes painstakingly hand-carved into the mountains, bare unsightly “I was here” scribbles from trespassers. To prevent further vandalism, the wooden ladders beside the niches were removed.
Nowadays, the municipal government is exerting more effort in guarding its very own mummies. Gates and watch posts have been placed along the pathways leading to the burial caves; taking photographs of the mummies are prohibited, save for “documentary” purposes; the mummies are seldom taken out of their caves, if at all, and visits to the caves are only possible with the presence of a local guide or, in some cases, the approval of the town’s elders.
Still, this does not mean that the Ibaloi mummies – declared as National Treasures during the time of former president Ferdinand Marcos – are always under tight watch from the responsible agencies.
“The folks here sometimes volunteer to guard the caves, but that is not enough,” Kelcho said even as he expressed concern that the mummies are being over-exploited in the name of commercialism.“They are real persons, not artifacts.”
Kelcho believes that their ancestors still have a lot to convey to them despite leaving their mortal shells behind.
“We want to educate everyone, from the tourists to our very own children, that the mummies should be treated with respect.”
By ELLSON A. QUISMORIO