Philippines - The Tattooed Fire Mummies
ASIAN Geographic|AG 04/2021 - 149
KNOWN BY A host of different names – the Kabayan Mummies, the Ibaloi Mummies or the Benguet Mummies – the Fire Mummies of the Philippines, resting beneath the mountain slopes of Kabayan, are some of the most fascinating mummified remains in the world. Kabayan is one of the municipalities of the province of Benguet in the Cordillera Region of northern Luzon and was home to the Ibaloi, a dominant ethno-linguistic group. Like many tribes in the Cordillera region, the Ibaloi were prolific practitioners of tattooing.
Yong Xin Ni Elyssa

Tourists have access to several of the mummy burial caves in Kabayan

Today, Kabayan is recognised as a centre of Ibaloi culture and the Kabayan Burial Caves, where the mummies are found, are listed as National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum of the Philippines. They are also a part of the Monument Watch’s list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world and have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mummies are believed to have been created by the Ibaloi people, though the exact time period this was practised remains highly debated. These mummies are unique, not only for their incredible tattoos, but also for the mummification process. The Ibaloi began the process of mummification shortly before the person died by having them ingest a salty concoction. Following the person’s death, the corpse was washed and set over a fire in a seated position in order to dry the fluids. The internal cavities and organs would then be dried by blowing smoke from tobacco into the mouth. Finally, herbs were rubbed into the body before the corpse was placed in a coffin and laid to rest in either rock shelters, natural caves, or man-made burial niches. The mummification process was exclusively used on high ranking individuals in the Ibaloi tribe, though the practice died out in the 1500s after Spain colonised the Philippines.

The intricately tattooed body of Apo Annu, an Ibaloi tribal leader who died 500 years ago, photographed at the National Museum of the Philippines. Shortly after the photo was taken, the mummy was returned to Benguet province. It is believed to have been stolen from a burial cave a century ago; read about the photographer’s experience on page 27

Detail of a mummified mother

Details of the tattoos of a mummified woman

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