Archaeological discoveries

In Kyrgyzstan, controversies around the burial of a mummy

Kyrgyzstan's decision to bury its only 1,500-year-old mummy has angered the scientific world. He accuses the authorities of giving in to psychics in this Central Asian country where superstitions remain deeply rooted.

Almazbek Atambayev, the outgoing president of Kyrgyzstan, at the UN headquarters in New York, September 20, 2017.

The mummy, of which little is known except that it is a woman, was removed from the museum where it was and hastily put back underground in mid-October 2017 in the south of the country, where it had been discovered in 1956. This decision was taken by a government commission, despite the opposition of the only archaeologist sitting there, but in accordance with the opinion of the Minister of Culture Toulguelbaï Kazakov. The latter justified the decision of the commission by the fact that the relic had been largely neglected by scientists and that Kyrgyzstan lacked the funds to preserve it in good conditions. The minister has since found himself the target of a flood of criticism, culminating in his resignation on Saturday in the face of disapproval from President Almazbek Atambayev.

Kyrgyzstan, a country born from the breakup of the Soviet bloc

Some observers have noted the strange concomitance of the burial of the mummy with the presidential election won by Sooronbaï Jeenbekov, an ally of the head of state leaving this former Soviet republic which is still politically very unstable. According to them, this decision highlights the influence of superstitions in the political circles of the country. The burial of the mummy was demanded by the mediums of the country, very influential with certain circles, who warned of a catastrophe if the relic remained locked up in a museum. Zamira Muratbekova, one of these mediums, claims to have received a message from the spirit world ordering the authorities to bury the mummy:"She was never dead" , she told AFP. "By burying him again, we avoided a bloodbath in the election" , she adds, denouncing calls by scientists to dig it up as a serious mistake.

Kadycha Tachbayeva, the main archaeologist of the country, who participated in the commission on the mummy, denounces for her part a decision motivated by the advice of charlatans. "We imagine that these people are only sectarian and marginalized. But they make themselves heard and the State echoes their positions" , she regrets. Although Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim, shamanic practices and superstitions are still widespread. In 2011, MPs ritually sacrificed seven sheep in the Parliament building to exorcise "evil spirits".

Outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev condemned the mummy's burial. One of the members of his party, participating in a parliamentary commission created after the burial, to decide once again on the fate of the mummy, nevertheless decided to leave the relic underground. "Is she Kyrgyz? Is she Muslim? We don't know anything about this mummy" , whose death undoubtedly precedes the birth of Islam, said MP Ryskeldi Mombekov. “Digging it up again would be vandalism” , he told a tense session of parliament in early October.

"Age of obscurantism"

Archaeologists around the world have condemned the mummy's burial as a setback for science. "Exhume the mummy and return it to a museum immediately" , suggests Victor Mair, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewed by AFP. This researcher has studied the so-called Tarim mummies, hundreds of which have been discovered in China, in the border regions of Kyrgyzstan. Experts believe that these mummies, which have been preserved thanks to the harsh conditions of the region, are essential to understanding the great routes of human migration.

One of the official justifications for the mummy's burial is that it is "an ordinary woman" and not of a leader deserving of preservation like Lenin (!). "We know her sex, we know she was quite young when she died. We could learn even more with DNA tests, but we lack specialists" , says Kadycha Tashbayeva. Along with her fellow archaeologists, she accuses self-proclaimed Kyrgyz psychics of fueling a sterile debate about the mummy's fate with "absurdities" :"I'm afraid we're destined for an age of obscurantism" .