Saving Benguet mummies and caves
By Imelda Visaya-Abano.



The mummies of the Ibaloi tribe in Benguet province, some 140 miles north of Manila, lay undisturbed for centuries, until the early 1900s, when loggers accidentally found mummies in several caves, together with hundreds of skulls and wooden coffins in the town of Kabayan.
Since then, both tourists and vandals have flocked to the caves, marking their visits with graffiti and carvings on the cave walls and coffins.
At present, the condition of the mummies is deplorable. Field mice have burrowed into the stomachs of the centuries-old mummies. Cutting of trees near the caves has also loosened up the rocks and mountainsides, exposing the caves to rain and sunlight.
Some of the mummies are fast decaying and have turned to dust prematurely, says Orlando Abinion, curator of the National Museum.
"The rains are slowly destroying the mummies in Kabayan," he said. "Water had seeped in many of the caves, and the damp condition inside caused the growth of the molds in the mummies."
Abinion said that even the wooden coffins are now aggravating the deterioration of the mummies. He explained that the wooden coffins are the first to rot and the mummies are destroyed when the rot reaches them.
There are also reports that many of the mummies were victims of an ancient pestilence, and breathing the air inside the caves could be hazardous, Abinion said.
Included among the 100 most endangered historical sites
The site's designation as a National Cultural Treasure did not guarantee the relics' safety. Last year, the Kabayan mummy caves were also included in the list of the 100 most endangered historical sites by the World Monument Watch, which compiles the list for potential financial donors.
The National Museum has made an inventory of mummy caves in Benguet. Fifty of the caves are found in Kabayan and 200 others in nearby towns in Benguet and Mt. Province. The Philippine government is seeking the return of about 80 of them.
Preservation efforts for the Kabayan Mummy Cave started in September 1999, partly funded by a $35,000 donation from American Express. Investigation of more caves is continuing.
At Timbac cave, the National Museum found 16 mummies and 9 wooden coffins damaged by water and insects. At the other side of the cave, 6 other mummies and 7 wooden coffins were found. The cave appears to be a burial site of a tribal chieftain's family.
In Bangao cave, 6 mummies were found in advanced stage of deterioration, mostly likely from rats. In Tenongchol cave, 23 wooden coffins were found, heavily vandalized.
Preserving the preserved
According to Abinion, the restoration of the mummy caves would have three phases:
The first is cultural awareness, or to bring pride to the Benguet residents about the mummies.
The second phase is site management, which is most crucial because it involves coming out with a comprehensive policy covering restoration and supplemental infrastructure. This involves construction of safe access roads and drainage system around the caves, and grills to protect them from looters and others.
The third phase is the long-term monitoring and maintenance of the caves.
Ban on removal of mummies from the caves
Early this year (February), the province of Benguet had approved a ban on the removal of any of its world-famous mummies from their burial sites.
Benguet governor Raul Molintas invoked among others, the provisions of the Constitution, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 and Presidential Decree 260. All refer to the recognition and protection by the state of the cultural properties and treasurers of indigenous communities, rights to religious, cultural sites and ceremonies, and the preservation of cultures, traditions and institutions.
The provincial ordinance slaps violators a fine of P5,000 or possibly a one-year imprisonment. It also states that "any person found in possession of any mummy outside of the burial cave shall be presumed to have taken such mummy from the burial site; and any person guilty of violating the measure shall be required to pay civil liability to the nearest descendant of the mummy or to the concerned local government in case no relatives are identified for the return to its resting place."
Discovery of mummies outside Kabayan
In October last year, several high school students on a field trip accidentally found two mummies in a cave in Kapangan. The students discovered the mummies in Sitio Balabag Tawang in Barangay Baleng-belis in Kapangan.
The discovery of the two mummies in October is one of the rare instances when mummies are found outside of Kabayan, the cultural center of the Ibalois.
Kapangan Mayor Eugenio Leon said they failed to identify the origin of the mummies from photographs supplied by the Benguet provincial government.
"Based on the pictures that we saw, we could say that the mummies were half-preserved,'' Leon said.
The mummies, which appeared to have similar characteristics to the more famous mummies of Kabayan town, were found tucked in a fetal position by students of the Gov. Bado Dangwa Agricultural-Industrial High School.
The National Museum, however, said the province could not touch these mummies without its permission.
"These mummies in the caves are considered national cultural treasures. They should inform us first before they can investigate," said Abinion.
In 1999, National Museum officials returned an intricately-tattooed mummy, known from oral history as of Apo Annu, a tribal leader who died five centuries ago. The body had been stolen between 1918 and 1920, supposedly by a Christian pastor, became part of a sideshow in a Manila circus, and changed hands many times since. In 1984 an antique collector donated it to the National Museum.

More About The Kabayan Mummies