Humans Keep Mummifying in This Mountain Town, and No One Knows Why

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Bodies Mysteriously Mummified in Andes TownDouglas Peebles - Getty Images
  • Bodies interred in the San Bernardo municipal cemetery often become naturally mummified.

  • The mummification only started happening when a new cemetery was built.

  • Scientists say more research is needed to understand why the mummification process is happening so frequently.

There’s a common occurrence at the San Bernardo municipal cemetery, the burial site for a small Colombian town high up in the Andes Mountains, that requires officials to remove bodies interred in vaults from decades past to make room for new burials. What’s also somewhat commonplace is that these exhumed bodies come out fully mummified.

And by fully, we’re talking they can still have clothes, hair, and eyeballs, some of the first things to decompose.

“When all this began, people were a little incredulous about what was happening,” Rocio Vergara, the cemetery’s Museum of Mummies guide, tells Agence France-Presse. “They thought these were going to be isolated events. As time went on, it became more and more frequent to find bodies in this condition.”

The San Bernardo municipal cemetery opened around 1960 and the first mummy was found in 1963. By the late 1980s, AFP reports roughly 50 mummies were being found each year, although that has dropped to only about five annually today.

The theories fly fast and furious in the mountainous town. Could it be that mummification is an after-death reward granted by the gods? Or possibly a punishment handed down? Some believe it ties to the diet and lifestyle required to survive in the farming town. But without a distinct pattern and true randomization to tie mummification to individuals—AFP reports that one mummy spent most of his life in Bogota, roughly 60 miles away, before being buried at his birthplace—the answer may rest in the actual cemetery.

Prior to the opening of the above-ground vaults, the town’s two previous cemeteries offered up no cases of mummification.

“The wind is constantly blowing as it is hot,” Daniela Betancourt, anthropologist at the National University of Colombia, tells AFP. “It is possible to assume that the vaults work like an oven … they dehydrate you.”

Located on a steep mountain slope, the location of the vaults in relation to the wind and temperatures could play a role. But nothing has been tested yet. “There has been a lack (of) studies about what is happening and what specific conditions are the ones that cause people to mummify,” Betancourt says.

When the mummification happens in San Bernardo, families have an option. They can have their loved one’s body cremated or moved into a museum for future preservation. With more than a dozen mummies now in the cemetery’s museum, there could be additional mummies on the way. “If God wanted to preserve her,” Clovisnerys Bejarano, daughter of one of those now in the museum, tells AFP, “it must be for a reason.”

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