Some claim that science has gone about as far as it can go. The claim is often a step in an argument for pessimism on the future of technological progress. But that claim has been made many times in the past, and so far has always proven wrong. There’s plenty of phenomena for which we have no scientific explanation, implying that there is plenty of room for the advance of science. Mostly we ignore or forget these phenomena, because it causes cognitive dissonance for us to carry around facts that do not fit into our current theories. Add spontaneous mummification in San Bernardo to the list.
(p. A14) Locals and mummification experts agree San Bernardo is a somewhat unlikely place for what’s known as spontaneous mummification, a phenomenon that occurs naturally, without embalming fluids and other techniques. The climate here is neither excessively dry, like in Northern Africa, nor freezing, like the Alpine environment that preserved Otzi the Iceman, a prehistoric body found in 1991.
San Bernardo’s temperature hovers around 70 degrees during the day, with enough rainfall to support crops like corn, onions, and green beans.
Cemetery workers here began noticing the mummification phenomenon in the mid-1960s, after a new graveyard was built. In Colombia, due to both tradition and earth that is often too soggy for proper burial, it is typical to inter loved ones in aboveground cement vaults, called bovedas. The bodies are generally removed after about five years because of space constraints and regulations.
Bodies in such vaults usually deteriorate significantly after a year or two, but that hasn’t been the case in San Bernardo–where it is believed that most of those buried in vaults are at least partially mummified.
“Hmmm,” said Ronn Wade, a member of the World Congress on Mummy Studies, an international organization, when asked about San Bernardo’s spontaneous mummification. “It could be dietary, environmental, or even the concrete of the vaults where they are stored.”
“It would be nice to have an explanation,” added Mr. Wade, who directs the anatomical services department of the University of Maryland.
. . .
“Whatever it is, it’s very local,” said Gonzalo Correal, a professor at Bogota’s Academy of Natural Sciences, who has studied San Bernardo’s mummies.
For the full story, see:
SARA SCHAEFER MUÑOZ. “In Small Colombian Town, People Love Their Mummies; Preserved bodies attract tourists, but remain a mystery; something in the diet?” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Oct. 1, 2015): A1 & A14.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story was updated on Sept. 30, 2015, and has the title “In This Small Colombian Town, People Love Their Mummies; Preserved bodies of people born in roughly the last hundred years become tourist attraction.”)