By Kayla Ngai
On February 28, 2023, a prehistoric mummy, estimated to be approximately 600-800 years old, was discovered in Peru. In possession of the corpse was twenty-six-year-old Julio Cesar Bermejo, who took the corpse out of a “Pedidos Ya” food delivery cooler bag to show off to his friends.
The mummy was placed in the fetal position in a park in the Peruvian city of Puno. Surrounding it were three men, including Bermejo, who were found casually drinking beside the corpse. Now Bermejo, along with his friends, is being detained while the police continue to investigate the suspicious circumstances and crimes against Peruvian heritage.
Though mummies are fascinating to study, I believe that it is important to do so professionally and with adequate respect, as they used to be human life. Although I am not versed in Latin American burial practices, I cannot imagine this being one of them and these actions being seen as very respectful.
However, according to Myend (a company that focuses on end-of-life planning), Pre-Columbian and Andean civilizations “left their dead at summits of mountains or in the Huacas (special burial chambers).” The climate in this region leads to mummification. Bermejo and his friends did not follow burial practices, instead, they disturbed them: drinking alcohol in an empty park, and surrounding and staring at a mummy, was inappropriate and disrespectful.
While being interviewed, Bermejo revealed his strange practices involving the mummy. Bermejo called the mummy his “spiritual girlfriend” and told officers that he had named it “Juanita.” He would keep the body “at home… in [his] room, [and that] she sleeps with [him]. [He] take[s] care of her.” Bermjeo elaborated that he would keep the mummy in a box next to his television. Bermujo’s actions indicate that he has been using this mummy as a prop or decoration rather than an appreciation of what was once a human life.
Bermejo asserts that he took care of this mummy and did in fact respect it, however, his actions show otherwise. He admitted that the corpse had been passed down to him by his father. Bermejo did not go into further detail about how his father obtained the body nor how long it has been in their family’s possession, but it is evident that these inappropriate and disturbing practices have been long-standing. This raises further questions. Such as, what were they doing with the corpse until they were discovered? Hopefully, the Peruvian police have a successful investigation.
In terms of identification, the Peruvian news agency, ANDINA, reported that the mummy is in fact an adult male from the eastern area of Puno. Although the gendering of bones is not definitive, the most primitive feature distinguishing the two sexes is the pelvic bone. At the time of his death, the mummy was noted to be about forty-five years old and 4’11”. He was wrapped in bandages that imitated the “pre-Hispanic burials in the area.”
According to the BBC, “Mummification was practiced by a variety of cultures in what is now Peru before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Some mummies were buried while others were brought out and paraded during key festivals.” Luckily, the Ministry of Culture has taken the mummy and classified it as a “national cultural asset.”
This story is alarming and many questions are left unanswered. The Bermejo family turned a deceased human, someone who should have been honored and appreciated, into a disturbing family heirloom and a mere prop. Their actions were disrespectful and should be considered a crime against Peruvian heritage.