By Steve Tauschke Photos By Dwayne Tauschke
In Papua New Guinea’s Morobe Highlands, the indigenous Anga tribe adheres to a centuries-old method of mummification for its dead: smoke curing. The process is careful, thorough, and loaded with ritualistic bearing—in addition to memorializing lost pals and family members, it is an equally restorative, if macabre, ceremony for those who remain.
First, the knees, elbows, and feet of a corpse are slit, and the body fat is drained. It is similar to the way a hog is gutted and strung up in a slaughterhouse, except hollowed-out bamboo poles are then jabbed into the dead person’s guts, and the drippings are collected and smeared into the hair and skin of relatives. This is thought to transfer the strength of the deceased to the living. The Anga believe that dining on bits of the cadaver has a similar effect, so any leftover liquid is saved and used as cooking oil.
But it gets better—or more awful, depending on your constitution…
|Experienced embalmers sew a mummy’s mouth, eyes, and anus shut to reduce air intake and impede flesh rot. This meticulous process of orifice sealing is precisely why these guys are in such good shape 200 years later.|
|The Anga also slice off the soles of the feet, the tongue, and the palms of the cadavers and present them to the surviving spouse. What remains of the corpse is tossed into a communal fire pit and cured. Afterward, the body is coated in clay and red ocher, which act together as a natural cocoon that protects against decay and scavenging dogs.|
|The Anga then ignite a large funeral pyre and have at it. Even mummy babies are left perfectly intact.|
|All this is standard practice, according to the mummies’ guardian. Her name has no English translation. Pointing to a desiccated warrior mummy dating back to World War II, she says he was bayoneted by Japanese troops and preserved by elders. He is strung up with rope from his bow and arrow, and his kunda nose piercing is still clearly visible. This type of curing was officially outlawed when Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975, and many tribes now perform Christian burials. In remote pockets like this, however, mummification is still the preferred method of dealing with the dead.|