Philippines: Curse of the cave mummies

By John Summers

In the Philippines' highlands, in a storm, John Summers discovers eerie tombs

Country Side of Baguio City, Philippines. Photo / Thinkstock
Country Side of Baguio City, Philippines. Photo / Thinkstock

Kabayan is high in the Cordillera Mountains, an arse-shattering five-hour bus ride from the city of Baguio. Our driver made no apology for the constant bouncing and jolting over pot-holes - above his head hung a tapestry banner that read: "It's out of my hands."

This isolation has made for distinctive customs. Kabayan's people once wore only g-strings and elaborate tattoos, practised headhunting and mummified their dead. The region's Ibaloi tribe propped the recently deceased in chairs over low fires, drying them out over several days.

Unlike Egyptian mummies, the internal organs remained, although tobacco smoke was blown into them to keep the worms away. Once mummification was complete, the bodies were stowed away in natural and man-made caves.

At night, without streetlights, the town was a few scruffy tin buildings on a single road.

Mountains loomed above, terraced gardens cut into them, and lower down, in a river valley, were rice fields so green they almost glowed.

With our Ibaloi guide, Timmy, we set out early, heading for the burial place of centuries-old mummies. Cheerfully puffing cigarettes and talking crops, Timmy led us down through the town, past a ramshackle shed used for cockfighting and over the river where, when not guiding visitors, he panned for gold. After a few hours we were in the mountain; Timmy pointed peaks that were home to mummies. "Over there. There and there."

It seems every mountain is a resting place, but the exact locations are kept secret. Fame has not been kind to Kabayan's mummies, and over the years several have gone missing, only to wind up in Manila sideshows or in overseas museums, some even in New Zealand, they believe.

But like all good mummies, they have been protected by a curse. Stealing them is thought to have brought on storms and days without sunlight. One thief made it only 2km from a burial cave before collapsing and dying.

A cold wind picked up, and a constant drizzly rain. We found ourselves underdressed, staggering above the clouds. Timmy whipped a polythene tarpaulin from his backpack, tying two corners at his neck, draping the rest, Superman-style, over his shoulders. We left the trail for a muddy goat-track. The weather was now truly awful and our clothes were sodden.

"We're almost there," Timmy said at least once every hour. Eventually, it was true and we came to two lonely caves sheltered by trees. Timmy entered one and I could hear him moving something, talking quietly as he did. Perhaps he was saying a prayer - or was it a warning to expect company? He ushered me into the cave.

About a dozen coffins were stacked in a small space. Timmy had opened the lids of three, and so I crouched beside them, alone with some very old, very dead people. They lay in cannonball position, withered knees drawn up to their chests, and parchment skin stretched across dry bones. Sunken eyes gazed at the cave ceiling. The hands and feet were the most remarkable feature, the joints and knuckles still perfectly formed, dainty even.

Their people had chosen this site carefully. Solid rock stood between us and the elements, and after our five-hour hike I couldn't help but appreciate the dry and the quiet of their resting place.

There are many theories on the age of the mummies. Timmy says they are maybe 600 years old. His grandfather believed mummification began about 750 years ago but some scientists suggest the mummies date from as far back as 2000BC.

It doesn't really matter. They are old enough for the Ibaloi to know they were here first. They have outlasted the Spanish and American colonisers, the Japanese occupiers, the dictatorship of Marcos - and now two New Zealanders who head for flat land, anxious to get out of the rain.


Kabayan Checklist

GETTING THERE: Kabayan can be reached from the city of Baguio, which is around six hours north of Manila.

A Liner runs three buses to Kabayan daily from Baguio.

ACCOMMODATION: At the time of writing, Coop Lodge was the only accommodation in Kabayan. It offers serviceable but spartan bunk rooms.

- NZ Herald

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