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The Mystery Mummies of Colombia

When one thinks of mummies, one most likely envisions ancient Egypt and the complicated processes of mummification that implies. Yet, there are many other places in the world which have produced mummies of their own, often without any artificial preservation means necessary. One such place lies in the South American country on Columbia, where for decades there have been reports of corpses that simply refuse to bow down to the inexorable passage of time, to for due to mysterious, misunderstood processes remain free from the ravaged of entry, rotting, and passage of time.

Nestled in the Andes mountains and located about a 3-hour drive from Bogota, Columbia lies a rural town called San Bernardo. Although surrounded by magnificent sprawling natural vistas and numerous unique species of flora and fauna, the town itself is rather unremarkable, looking very much like many of the other small towns and villages scattered throughout the region, and one could drive by it completely without giving it much thought. Yet it is here where a strange mystery has played out over decades, in the form of a collection of corpses that do not seem to rot, rather mummifying and preserving themselves naturally to remain remarkably intact and resistant to time through unknown means that have stumped scientists.

The region of San Bernardo, Columbia

The “San Bernardo Mummies,” as they have been called, were first discovered when the town relocated its cemetery in 1957 after a flood came sweeping through. As the grave workers toiled away going through bodies in the above ground vaults common to the area and moving them to their new resting places, the startling discovery was made that many of them seemed to be totally fresh and untouched by rampaging decay or decomposition, seeming to be locked into something akin to a perpetual state of suspended animation. Such naturally mummified remains were found throughout the cemetery, and one grave digger named Eduardo Cifuentes said of such a finding:

The burial pit was full of bodies. I didn’t like stepping on them because they were humans like us so I started organizing them. I liked the idea of keeping them for posterity

It was Cifuentes who would bring the case to the attention of outsiders and begin some process of examining the strange corpses. It was found that not only were the bodies somehow petrified or mummified in some way, but that also their clothes were mostly in good condition when they should have been rotted to mere tatters. There was no evidence of any attempts to embalm the corpses or tamper with them in any way, nor any sign of some sort of chemical intervention in the soil, they were just for some reason immune to the normal deterioration process, defying the process of decay and merely exhibiting some wrinkling, paleness, or in some cases conversely a browning of the skin. Considering that other corpses in the cemetery had inexorably rotted away as expected, no one could figure out why these should remain so relatively pristine, and it is a mystery even now.

San Bernardo mummies

There have been many theories, of course. One is that it has something to with the local diet, which includes two unique fruits in the region called the guatila and the balu, with the guatila being a hard, green, orange sized fruit with small thorns, while the balu resembles an enormous green bean pod with purple beans. Many locals insist that it is these special fruits, plus the incredibly clean water and the absence of any additives in the food here that have contributed to the incorruptibility of the town’s corpses. However, this does not explain why the clothes should also remain relatively untouched by the passage of time, and no other surrounding villages have produced such spontaneous mummies, despite sharing a similar diet and conditions.

Another reason that has been proposed is the dry weather and high altitude of the area, which must somehow be preserving the corpses, or maybe some unique quality of the soil, but again San Bernardo is the only town in the direct vicinity to display such a phenomenon. Indeed, it is only this one very specific cemetery that has produced such mysterious remains, which has also drawn the idea that there is something perhaps more mystical or paranormal going on at this site. One local has said of this:

I think the location of the cemetery, the actual site, I think it is something to do with the Universe, because it never happened at the old cemetery, never. No mummies ever came out from there.

A San Bernardo mummy on display

Whatever the reason may be, the incredible state of preservation displayed by these bodies has served to continue to puzzle the scientific community, and the cause has never been satisfactorily solved. Many of the families of the best preserved of these mummified corpses have gotten together to curate an exhibition of them, where over a dozen of the bodies of various ages are on public display behind glass cases. In many cases, the corpses appear to be rather spookily and freakishly intact, with mostly untouched clothing, and in possession of their hair, fingernails, and eerily lifelike visages, only some wrinkling and sunken eye sockets betraying them as dead at all, and the overall unsettling feeling is that any one of them might open their eyes at any moment. Interestingly, the museum is a low key operation, with no high-tech temperature control or any measures put in place at all to maintain the vigor of the corpses, yet they still refuse to rot, and draw in droves of curious tourists looking for a glimpse at the macabre.

What is going on with these bodies? Is it something in the air, the food, the water? What have they remained impervious to rot and deterioration to stay looking not too far off of what they did when they were buried? Why is it only this one then, and by all accounts just this one cemetery that produces this weirdness? In short, no one really knows. The mystery of San Bernardo’s mummies has remained untracked and no one is any closer to deciphering the mystery of it all. For now, there are no easy answers, and the mystery of the San Bernardo mummies stays shrouded in shadows.