When industrial activity began in the forests north of Manila, loggers discovered ancient burial caves hewn out of the rock containing mummified remains and hundreds of coffins and skulls. The Ibaloi tribe, which has existed in Benguet province for thousands of years, practiced embalming rituals also found in New Guinea and similar to those of the Egyptian 21st dynasty. Dying members of the tribe drank salty mixtures to begin the process. After death, their bodies were cleansed, rubbed with herbs, and heated while their mouths were filled with smoke. These steps were performed continually over a period of weeks before the deceased were placed fetal position into oval-shaped wooden coffins with decorative carvings. These practices endured until the arrival of Spanish colonialists in 1500 and the caves themselves remained untouched until the 19th century. Once uncovered, they were designated a National Cultural Treasure but the title assured them very little protection from vandalism and looting that was rampant among visitors hoping to leave their mark on the Kabayan mummies.
1998 World Monuments Watch
In addition to man-made problems, many of the caves were plagued by insect infestation and fungal growth. Although some slight research had been done and a few fences had been erected, any effort to protect the caves was complicated by their remoteness. WMF placed the caves on the 1998 Watch and secured a grant from American Express for emergency conservation and the creation of a comprehensive management plan. The project focused on four of the most visited and heavily damaged caves: Timbac I and II, Bangao, and Tenongchol. Under the guidance of the National Museum, conservators treated the mummies to prevent further deterioration. The governments of 13 municipalities were involved in a cultural awareness campaign to introduce these unique finds to the Philippine people. A workshop was held on the conservation of Benguet cultural heritage, which centered on possible methods and techniques to preserve the mummies. The Philippine Department of Tourism sanctioned off the area where the caves are located and built tourist facilities outside to better control visitation and prevent harmful intrusions. The caves opened to the public in October of 2002.
Although mummification is no longer practiced among the Ibaloi people of Benguet Province, the tribe today still considers the Kabayan caves to be sacred territory and performs rituals in the area. The Ibaloi recently reburied one of the looted mummies, the intricately tattooed corpse of a chieftain named Apo Annu, after the National Museum procured and returned his body. Because of the tribe’s continuing relationship with the caves, it was important to develop the site for tourism and allow for economic growth without impeding their way of life. The Ibaloi actively participated in the conservation effort led by WMF and the National Museum in Manila to ensure the preservation of their history.