Mummified persons at the AfricaMuseum

The AfricaMuseum conserves two mummified persons. Where they came from and how they reached Tervuren was long shrouded in mystery, and extensive research conducted in 2003 provided little information. In 2022, as part of the HOME project on human remains in Belgian collections, AfricaMuseum researchers were able to determine the exact origin of the two mummified individuals. They were found by a Belgian military officer on Rwanda’s Mount Cyanzarwe in 1915.

In 2001, the press devoted several articles (such as this article in De Standaard) on two mummified individuals that are still in conservation at the AfricaMuseum to this day. While the media spoke of ‘mummies’, they are in fact ‘mummified persons’, as their mummification occurred by natural means. The two persons were registered in the biological collections of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) under inventory numbers a8.010-M-0004 and a8.010-M-0005. The museum takes pains to conserve the mummified persons in a respectful manner in the CAPA building, where a significant portion of the collections, the central library, and several services are located.

In 1964, human remains conserved at the AfricaMuseum were transferred to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. However, owing to the lack of information regarding them, these two mummified persons remained at the AfricaMuseum (AfricaMuseum 2011: 3).

The scant information available on these persons make them all the more compelling. With this page, the AfricaMuseum hopes to help dispel the mystery.

An internal report in 2003

In 2003, a multidisciplinary study that included isotopic analyses, pollen studies, radiocarbon dating, physical measurements, and historical accounts was initiated under the aegis of biologist Wim Van Neer, the then head of the RMCA Vertebrates section. Its goal was to determine the exact origin of the two mummified persons. According to the researchers, they were two male herders from the Kivu region who arrived at the museum in the 1930s. As the study yielded no exact provenance, no other measures were taken to repatriate these human remains (RMCA Archives, Van Neer et al. 2004). The report’s conclusion theorized that the mummified persons were alive in the late 1930s and that they were probably from a cave in the region of Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Results from the paleontological analysis confirmed that the plant species were typical of that region. None of the findings indicated that they died in violent circumstances. The mummification process they underwent is similar to the natural mummification observed in certain birds on Kivu’s Mikeno volcano. Physical anthropology studies found that the two mummified persons were probably men aged 30 and 45 years old. Compared with persons from the Horn of Africa, Rwanda, and the centre-south of Congo, they appear to be closer to those from Rwandan communities. Radiocarbon dating placed their time of death between 1660 and 1960. Isotope analysis showed that their diet contained meat and that they were thus more likely to be herders rather than farmers (RMCA archives, Van Neer et al. 2004). 

A widely-covered exhibit and an illuminating 2011 article

For the museum, the dilemma was twofold. Lack of identification made repatriation particularly complex, but the museum wanted the general public to be aware of the existence of these mummified persons (see this article in De Standaard). Before the scheduled start of renovation works in 2012, the AfricaMuseum presented the exhibition UNCENSORED. Vivid tales from behind the scenes. In this exhibit, visitors could read that the mummified persons at the AfricaMuseum were probably two male herders from the Kivu region who became mummified naturally after their death (AfricaMuseum 2011).

These two are not the only human remains in the Tervuren collections. In 2011, art historian and researcher Agnès Lacaille and Isabel Garcia Gomez drew up a scientific and descriptive inventory of objects containing human remains in the museum’s ethnographic collection (Lacaille & Garcia Gomez 2011: 41). This led to a parliamentary question five years later on the collection of human remains.

A parliamentary question in 2016

In 2016, the two mummified persons were once again mentioned in a written question to the State Secretary for Science Policy, Elke Sleurs (N-VA), by the senator Bert Anciaux (SP.A), regarding the repatriation of human remains found in federal collections. It covered topics ranging from physical integrity to the approaches of disciplines such as archeology, biology, medicine, and cultural anthropology. Moreover, Anciaux emphasized the possible repatriation of these human remains. The response made note of the fact that the mummified persons were still conserved by the AfricaMuseum Biology department, ‘with no indication of their exact provenance or the circumstances of their discovery’ (see the question and response). 

HOME in 2022

As part of the HOME (Human Remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation) project, new details were found in a descriptive military report and in correspondence. The military report ‘Expédition de deux momies trouvées par les troupes coloniales à Tshandjarue, 1916’ (‘expedition of two mummies found by colonial troops in Tshandjarue, 1916’) was part of the dossier documenting the objects transferred by the colonial administration to the Museum of (Belgian) Congo (Archives ARA2, M17, °132). The two mummified persons had been found at the mouth of a volcanic crater by Belgian troops under the command of Captain Léon Defoin of the Force publique on 30 November 1915, during a military campaign that began in East Africa during the First World War (Stiénon 1918: 62). They were found in Rwanda on Mount Tshandjarue, a few hundred kilometers from the aforementioned Mikeno range. The mountain is now known as Cyanzarwe. That said, the name Tshandjarue can be found on a 1948 map of the former Albert National Park, now the Virunga Park (François Kervyn, personal communication). The mountain is found 12 km north of Lake Kivu. Only a few days prior, on 27 November 1915, a devastating battle with German soldiers took place there. Nearly all the soldiers in the Belgian company led by Defoin lost their lives that day (Ergo s.d.: 6). 

Military report

According to the general register of the Anatomical Anthropology collections, the mummified human remains were donated by the Belgian lieutenant Michel T.J.A. Styczynski (1886-1916). He was a grenadier on the front in 1914. After being wounded, he was named a sub-lieutenant of the Force publique in Congo in 1915, beginning his career in the then Belgian Congo on 12 April of that year (MRA Archives, ‘Persoonlijk militair dossier’ [Personal military dossier] Michel T.J.A. Styczynski’, DO 11912).

The military report recounting the expedition of two mummified persons is undated, but is attached to a letter addressed to the ministry in London on 4 July 1916. Styczynski left for Belgium a month later. The report drafted by the sub-lieutenant provides a description of the site, the mummified persons, and their state of conservation. According to him, the remains were of a man and a woman, one with a skull and the other without. Styczynski also indicated the supposed race of the mummified persons, and explained that it was difficult for the Belgian troops to estimate the date of the volcanic eruption or determine the reason why the two were inside the crater. A hypothesis described by Styczynski states that inhabitants probably had farms within the mountain massif. Matching the 2004 scientific report, the military report indicated that the two persons were mummified naturally by a volcanic eruption (ARA2 Archives, M17,°132).

In 1916, the mummified persons were sent to London’s British Museum at the request of the Minister of Colonies Jules Renkin (1862-1934). At that time, the Belgian government resided in London while awaiting the end of the war. The remains were transferred to the Tervuren museum with no additional explanation (RMCA Archives, ‘Registre general des collections anatomiques anthropologiques’ [General register of the anthropological anatomic collections], 1887-1960). Édouard De Jonghe (1878-1950), an enthusiast of colonial ethnography and the recently appointed directeur du cabinet (private secretary) of the Ministry of Colonies in 1919, was then in contact with the British Museum (Schampaert 2010: 105; RMCA Archives ‘Musée du Congo 1887-1960’). On 28 August 1919, he makes mention of the post-war transfer of 29 acquisitions that were conserved at the British Museum during the war (RMCA Archives, ‘Dossiers coordination période 1910-1931’ [Coordination dossiers, 1910-1931 period]). 

Other leads

This tale raises questions about the East African campaign during the First World War. Were the mummified persons war booty, a scientific acquisition, or both? Natural historians and archeologists are interested in the mummification process. Or was it a cultural choice to visit the crater at a time when the volcano was still active? Geologists wonder about the volcanic crater in Rwanda. When was the volcano active? Is the crater part of the Mikeno massif? Are there other craters nearby?

The case inevitably points to the prospect of collaborating with Rwandan researchers. A future Belgo-Rwandan network could reflect on a realistic and desirable final destination for these mummified individuals.

Possible research topics

Multidisciplinary collaboration with Rwandan researchers:

  • study the historical trajectory of Belgian troops in 1915;
  • discuss local history and culture with local communities;
  • further investigate the geology of Mount Cyanzarwe. 


AfricaMuseum. 2011. Persdossier: Uncensored - Laatste Expo voor de renovatie. Tervuren : MRAC.

Anciaux, B. 2016. ‘Question écrite n° 6-1015’. Online: (consulted on 8 June 2022).

CRSN. 1948. Congo Belge et Ruanda-Urundi. Carte de la région du parc national Albert. Bukavu. Available online: 

Ergo, A.B. s.d. Le Congo dans la Guerre 14-18. Braine-le-Château : A.s.b.l. Dialogue des peuples. 

Lacaille, A. & Garcia Gomez, I. 2011. ‘Les états du corps : conservation préventive des restes humains au sein des collections ethnographiques du Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale’. In: M. Brillot, La Vie des musées 23, volume thématique: Les Restes humains : 29-42. 

Reynebeau, M. 2011. ‘Uncensored in het Afrikamuseum’. De Standaard. Online: (consulted on 8 June 2022).

Schampaert, A. 2010. ‘Edouard De Jonghe, 1878-1950. Wegbereider voor koloniale instellingen en administratie’. Bijdragen tot de Eigentijdse Geschiedenis 22: 97-112. 

Stiénon, C. 1918. La Campagne anglo-belge de l’Afrique orientale allemande. Paris: Berger-Levrault. 


Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (RMCA):

  • ‘Dossiers coordination période 1910-1931’, AA.1.A.1919. 
  • ‘Musée du Congo 1887-1960’.
  • ‘Registre général des collections anatomiques anthropologiques’ (Musée du Congo belge), 1960.
  • Van Neer, W. et al. 2004. ‘Intern rapport over twee menselijke mummies bewaard aan het Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika’. Department of Zoology. 

Belgian State Archives, Brussels (ARA):

  • ARA2, MiniCol, SPA. Kolonie, ‘M17 Objets transmis (ou renseignés) au Musée par l’Administration d’Afrique,°132’.

Royal Military Museum, Brussels (MRA):

  • Cdoc. KLM-MRA, ‘Persoonlijk militair dossier Michel T.J.A. Styczynski’, 1917, DO 11912.