Tarbagan’s Winter Lair: Framing Drivers of Plague Persistence in Inner Asia
First identified as potential hosts of plague by Russian scientists working in South Siberia in 1894, marmots came into international medical limelight in the course of the 1910–1911 devastating plague epidemic in Manchuria. With scientific opinion split about the host capacity of the animal and its involvement in human outbreaks, research on it and its natural ecology quickly multiplied. A key question revolved around the seasonality of human plague outbreaks, and whether plague could survive in marmots, their fleas and their environment during the hibernation of the animals in the long Siberian and Manchurian winter. Research into the question led scientists to literally go down the marmot hole, in an effort to map the complex marmot burrows. Epidemiological mapping used both cartography and photography to identify the structure and materiality of marmot burrows as potential reservoirs of plague, from where the disease could leap from season to season, marmot to marmot, but also from marmots to other species who may be seeking food or shelter therein. The chapter examines how medical concern and uncertainty about the marmot as a plague host led to a medicalisation of its living infrastructures and how this necessitated the employment of visual techniques and tropes as a method of solidifying marmots as epistemic objects for modern epidemiology.
Research leading to this chapter was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no. 336564, for the project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic (University of Cambridge and University of St Andrews, PI: Christos Lynteris). I would like to thank the project’s researchers and the participants of the project’s third annual conference, ‘Assembling Epidemics: Disease, Ecology and the (Un)natural’ for discussions of the epidemiological configuration of natural environments, as well as Lukas Engelmann for our discussions on the diagrammatic configuration of plague and David N. Lueshink for discussions of Wu Liande’s marmot experiments. I would finally like to thank Michael Kosoy for his help with understanding some of the finer subtleties of Russian plague research, and for an enduring exchange on Russian plague science over the years, and Frédéric Keck for our ongoing discussion of disease reservoirs.