Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Melanesia Mummies

(also called fire mummies, Ibaloi mummies, Benguet mummies)


When were they were found

Many mummies from Australia, Papua New Guinea, and islands in the Torres Strait have been found.

When they were made

Although firm dates are hard to come by (some of these mummies are quite recent), some scientists believe that the oldest mummies in the world may well come this region, though no human-made mummies have been found (yet) that pre-date the Chinchorro mummies of South America.

How they were made

In Australia, some aboriginal tribes tied a corpse into a sitting position and left it outdoors until dried by the sun. Then, instead of burial, they placed the body in the branches of a tree or on a raised wooden platform. Some tribes helped speed the mummification process by sewing the mouth, eyes, and other orifices closed and then smoking the body in order to dry it. Before doing this, they took out all the fat from the body, mixed it with red ocher, and smeared it on the skin. Then, write Pretty and Calder, fires were

kindled underneath the platform, and the friends and mourners take up their position around it, where they remain about 10 days, during the whole of which time the mourners are not allowed to speak; a guard is placed on each side of the corpse, whose duty it is to keep off the flies with bunches of emu feathers or small branches of trees. . . . After the body has remained several weeks on the platform, it is taken down and buried [in a tree or on another platform]; the skull becomes the drinking cup of the nearest relation. Bodies thus preserved have the appearance of mummies; there is no sign of decay; and the wild dogs will not meddle with them, though they devour all manner of carrion.

In a somewhat different version, people from Melanesia, the islands north of Australia, allowed the body to sit out for a few days before they put it (by then quite swollen) into a canoe and sailed it away from land. Its skin was peeled off and the internal organs were removed and replaced with palm pith; the brain was also removed. Finally, the body was taken back to shore, tied to a wooden frame, and hung to dry. In order to make sure that it dried properly, small holes were made in the knees, elbows, hands, and feet to help bodily fluids drain. At this time, the tongue, the palms of the hands, and the soles of the feet were removed and given to the survivingspouse.

After a number of months, when the mummy was dried, it was decorated with seashell eyes, grass, and seeds, and was painted in red ocher. The mummy was then tied to the center post of the home of its spouse. As Pretty and Calder note, "when, in the course of time, it fell to pieces, the head only was retained."

How many were made

No estimates of the number of Melanesian mummies have been made..

What's special about them

The meaning behind such mummification practices makes them special.

In Melanesia, for example, the grieving family used mummification as a way of making sure that the dead person would be present for a longer period of time. If they could stop the body from decomposing, they would have the company of the relative longer.

Where to see them

Although a number of mummies used to be displayed at museums in Australia, they have been removed from display for the same reason that native American mummies have been removed from exhibit in U.S. museums. No one wants to see his or her ancestors on display.

Where to find more information


Aidan and Eve Cockburn's Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures has a chapter by Graham Petty and Angela Calder (the same chapter is repeated in both editions). The first edition, however, has more visual material included.