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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
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.