Episode 52: The Fire Mummies of Northern Philippines


This week, my musings follow up on a conversation I had with comic book writer/artist Don Aguillo some months ago, who had remembered there were a group of people that practiced the art of mummification hundreds of years ago.  After a quick search, I found several URLs linking to the mummies of the Ibalois people, located in Northern Philippines at Mt. Timbac.  The Kabayan mummies, also known as the fire mummies, were intentionally preserved through a mummification process that was believed to originate from 2000 BC (in comparison, Egyptian mummification process was solidified around 2800 BC), however the mummies found thus far have been dated between the 1200s to 1500s BCE.  The mummification ritual was replaced by European practices in the 1500s when the Spanish invaded and colonized the country. 

Unlike the Egyptian mummification process that removed the internal organs and used natron to dry the body over a period of approximately 70 days, according to a Reuters article from 1999, the several weeks’ process involved drying the body from the outside inward. Prior to death, the person drank a salty liquid which started the dehydration process.  Once death occurred, the body was washed and composed in a tight seated position.  The body was exposed to the heat of a fire until the exterior was dried.  To dry the internal organs, tobacco smoke was blown into the body through the corpse’s open mouth.  Once the body was dried outside and inside, herbs were rubbed on the body.  The mummified body was placed in a small wooden coffin and placed in a cave up on the slopes of Mt. Timbac.  

Superstition pervades the region. The people of the area believed they had been cursed by the loss of one of their tribal elders, Apo Annu, who was stolen at some point between 1918 and 1920 (some websites identify a Christian pastor was the culprit).  Given Apo Annu lived approximately 500 years prior, one would be led to assume that he was one of the last leaders to be mummified by the traditional mummification ritual.  Apo Annu was reported to be an attraction at a carnival due to the elaborate body tattoos, before he was eventually donated to the National Museum of the Philippines. In 1984, Apo Annu was honored with a burial ceremony before being returned to his coffin and original burial site. Security was put into place – iron grating – so that his resting place was not disturb again.   An additional eight mummies were returned to the caves in 2004. 

From my research, apparently only tribal leaders were mummified through this process.  However, this information is based on mummies found thus far.  Because of desecration and looting of the early 20thcentury, about 80 mummies are believed to still be missing. Adding that number to the 100 or so mummies that are still intact in their burial caves led the nonprofit organization, Monument Watch, to declare the caves one of the 100 most endangered sites in 1998.  The National Museum of the Philippines has listed the caves as a cultural treasure of the country.  Additionally, UNESCO is considering listing the caves as a world heritage site.  

Visitors can view a few of the mummies at a small museum located in Kabayan.  Arranging for an official tour guide allows the tourist to visit one of the burial caves. 


Images are from History Daily article, “Ancient Fire Mummies Made by Literally Blowing Tobacco Smoke Inside Them” 

Resource sources: 

History Daily, “Ancient Fire Mummies Made by Literally Blowing Tobacco Smoke Inside of Them,” dated April 5, 2017 and retrieved February 10, 2020 at  https://historydaily.org/ancient-fire-mummies-made-literally-blowing-tobacco-smoke-inside

Mummy Tombs, “Kabayan Mummies,” dated 2000 and retrieved February 10, 2020 via Internet Archive Wayback Machine at https://web.archive.org/web/20001028161032/http://www.mummytombs.com/mummylocator/group/kabayan.htm

Wikipedia, “Kabayan Mummies,” retrieved February 10, 2020 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabayan_Mummies


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