Dr Christos Lynteris received his undergraduate and postgraduate training in social anthropology at the University of St Andrews. He was awarded a PhD in Social Anthropology in 2010 for work on three epidemic crises in modern China and their impact on society and governance. After completing a monograph on Maoist medicine and Confucian ethics at the Centro Incontri Umani in Switzerland, he was awarded an Andrew Mellon & Isaac Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship at CRASSH. His research on marmot hunting on the Russian-Chinese border and the social ecology of plague in the region has led to several peer reviewed articles and a new monograph (in review) on the “Ethnographic Configuration of Plague”.
As the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded 5-year project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, Dr Lynteris is researching plague photography on a regional and global scale.
His work investigates visual representations of outbreaks in China between 1855 and 1959, with a particular focus on the Hong Kong bubonic plague outbreak of 1894 and the Manchurian pneumonic plague outbreak in 1910-11. In comparing the two, his research focuses on the entanglement of visualisation strategies and biopolitical and geopolitical aspects of the epidemics. Of particular interest is the depiction of Chinese migrant workers (so-called “coolies”) as carriers of disease, and the representation of “coolie” urban environment and housing as an imagined source of infection.
On a global scale Dr Lynteris’ research engages in a comparative analysis, focusing on regimes of visibility and invisibility of plague. The work focuses on the inter-constitution of epistemological and ethical questions and strategies pertaining to how the causes and effects of plague are made visual. Key to the study, is the exploration of the implications of this complex nexus of symbolic and performative practices on ways in which we today visualise epidemics such as Ebola and bird flu.
From October 2011 to September 2013, Dr Lynteris was a Mellon Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow.
Transregional flows: the social ecology of pneumonic plague in Inner Asia
The last few years have witnessed the return of a threat to global human health that had not made its appearance for almost a century: pneumonic plague. Although commonly regarded today as a figure of our agricultural past, in fact plague (Yersinia pestis) remains a potentially lethal threat to modern human societies. Examples can be drawn from Madagascar, Uganda and more recently China, where a pneumonic plague outbreak struck Qinghai Province in the summer of 2009, providing ample evidence of both the threat posed by plague and our lingering inability to fully understand this ancient disease, especially in its most lethal, pneumonic variety.
The research project focuses on the neglected transregional socio-ecological aspects of pneumonic plague in Inner Asia. From Tibet through Qinghai, Mongolia and Manchuria, to the South Siberian steppes of Transbaikalia, societies as diverse as Buryat herders, Mongol hunters and Tibetan nomads share their environment with the natural reservoir of Yersinia pestis: marmots. These large rodents, which populate the area in vast numbers, have been established as the original source of the great Manchurian plague outbreaks of 1910-1911 and 1920-21 and are widely suspected as the main, if not sole, original source of the disease on the planet. Yet, more than simply living alongside marmots, native societies across Inner Asia have for centuries depended on them for fur, meat and fat, engaging in seasonal hunting and trapping activities from March to November (with local variations according to altitude and latitude), when the particular mammals do not hibernate. It is these activities, bringing humans and marmots in intensive direct contact, that have been considered by epidemiologists as the most crucial factor in the spread and containment of plague in the area. All four major plague outbreaks in the last 100 years (1910-11, 1920-21, 1926, 2009) have been attributed to marmot-hunting malpractices. However, whilst early 20th century outbreaks were blamed on migrant workers failing to employ skilled and hygienic native hunting methods, the recent outbreak in Qinghai has paradoxically been attributed to the natives themselves.
This discrepancy poses significant questions regarding our understanding of human-marmot-plague relations in the area. Do native societies today continue to share the knowledge of their Buryat and Mongol counterparts at the turn of the century, acclaimed by epidemiologists as highly preventive of the spread of plague to human communities? And why despite the prevalence of marmots in the area and their intensive hunting, there have been no major outbreaks in Mongolia proper? Do Chinese reports made during the recent pneumonic plague epidemic in Qinghai, blaming Tibetans for indiscriminately skinning and eating marmots, reflect actual processes of deskilling amongst native hunters? Could these accusations be merely a result of ethnic-religious bias harboured by Beijing’s medical elites against Tibetans? Or was the supposed native knowledge of the disease an artefact of epidemiological imagination in the first place?
Approaching these questions from a transregional and interdisciplinary perspective my research seeks to establish how native hunters today relate to marmots in the traditional foci of plague in Inner Asia. In particular, my research examines whether their hunting methods incorporate plague-preventive practices, taboos and restrictions, and whether their myths, rituals, stories, proverbs and riddles contain warnings against marmot-related plague.
The transregional flow and transmission of ritual and religious knowledge and practices across Inner Asia constitutes a particular focus of my study. Could the spread of Buddhism from Tibet to Transbaikalia via Mongolia account for similarities in human-marmot relations and plague related taboos in the area? Or could it actually be that, through pilgrimages, Tibetan Buddhism contributed to the spread of the disease, as claimed in the case of the 1916 plague outbreak in the Gansu Corridor of Northwest China? Through archival research and ethnographic fieldwork, my research examines the role of transregional flows of pre-Buddhist or shamanic beliefs and practices in the perception of human-marmot-plague relations, and how these may contend with Buddhist organised religion.
Far from simply covering an ethnographic or historiographic gap, answering these questions has a concrete impact on our understanding of the social ecology of pneumonic plague in Inner Asia. Though not conducted from an epidemiological perspective per se, this research aims to contribute to a more spherical public health approach to the particular disease in the area, by developing a syndemic analysis of shifting native subsistence practices, socio-ecological variations and transregional religious, economic, technological and political flows in the area.