My first thoughts when I heard about the San Bernardo mummies were of corpses delicately dressed in strips of linens and laid into custom made caskets. Images of Tut’s Tomb didn’t seem to mix well with local customs, but they came to mind anyways. In fact, after seeing the San Bernardo mummies, I had to re-think my understanding of what mummies really are. Fortunately, two days later I came across a podcast on mummies. Stuff You Missed In History Class, put on by How Stuff Works really clarified a lot for me.
The San Bernardo Mummies are different though.
Before we get into that, what is San Bernardo?
Well, San Bernardo is a small town in Colombia about 3 hours south of Bogota. Until the early 90’s it was relatively unknown. In fact, even today very few people outside of Colombia have ever hear of the town. The town is mostly supported by the local farms with focus on coffee and avocados. And of course, some tourism from the mummies.
View San Bernardo, Colombia in a larger map
History of the San Bernardo Mummies:
It struck me as odd to find out that these mummies are not thousands of years old. They’re actually only around 50! And these are not intentionally preserved bodies of the famous or elite. These people are buried in traditional means and somehow naturally preserved. Nobody seems to know how or why, but there are some speculations. One idea seems to revolve around a specific type of squash eaten in the region. That fails to explain why this is recent, only at one cemetery, and why clothes are staying in tact. Another theory involves the location of the cemetery. While this doesn’t draw quite as many complications, it still seems like nearby corpses would have the same effects.
Whatever the reason, the naturally preserved San Bernardo mummies are unique and interesting. Many of these bodies have been put on public display by families for educational purposes. The building containing the San Bernardo mummies does not provide any solutions. There are no pressure or humidity controls and the doors stay open most of the day. Many of the small windows of the building are broken and the public is welcomed to visit from 8 AM to 5 PM everyday for 2.000 Colombian Pesos (about 1 USD).
While walking through the exhibit with my friend Cesar, a San Bernardo local, he started telling me about the people in the cases. Stories about how he knew this person or that. I was floored to realize that the woman in this photo had died in the 70’s and he knew her before she passed.
The inside of the museum holds about 14 mummies. Each mummy is volunteered by the families for educational purposes. It’s not just people who died past their prime either. There are children on display as well. One glass container even houses the remains of a mother and child who died before the child was born. In that case the mother looks more like you’d expect from someone buried for years, while the child is preserved in it’s un-formed state. Signs on the walls explain to visitors the history of the museum and what is known about the corpses. Other boards tell the stories of the lives of the people in the cases. The photos of the people next to their mummies reduces the sci-fi ideas that are originally conjured.
More Questions than Answers?
I walked away with a lot more questions about the San Bernardo mummies than I’d come with. The museum was completely quiet and I didn’t want to disturb anyone with my broken Spanish trying to get answers. Doing my own research on the internet still didn’t answer a lot of the questions. Aside from some lengthy scientific reports there wasn’t much on the web. I found one article from the LA Times from 1995 and a YouTube video from December 2012. The video is a good watch, but much has changed since it was filmed. The basement no longer holds some of the original bodies and I didn’t know to ask where they’d gone when I was there.
Since I haven’t seen any definite answers on why the San Bernardo Mummies are occurring, I’ve been forced to come up with my own theory. My theory is that there is no upcoming Zombie Apocalypse. It’s a MUMMY APOCALYPSE and it’s starting right here in Colombia… Run!!!!
And since I have no scientific or anecdotal evidence to support my first theory, I’m coming up with a second. It must be something in the soil and I know where I’ll be buying my coffee from in the future.