Death by the Lake: Mortality Crisis in Early Fourteenth-Century Central Asia



Slavin P (2019) Death by the Lake: Mortality Crisis in Early Fourteenth-Century Central Asia. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 50 (1), pp. 59-90.

Our information about the fourteenth-century plague in Central Asia, or indeed anywhere east of the Crimea/Caspian, derives from a close analysis of the epigraphical evidence from three East Syriac (Nestorian) cemeteries not far from Issyk-Kul’ lake in northern Kyrgyzstan. The absence of palaeogenetic data to confirm it could be partially rectified by both textual and palaeoclimatological data. The ratio of mortality rates between “normal” and plague years in the Issyk-Kul’ communities is not unlike that in Europe during the plague years 1348 to 1350. A proper appreciation of the pandemic outbreak requires setting its timing in a climatic context. After two pluvial episodes in the 1310s and 1320s, precipitation levels in Issyk-Kul’ during the 1330s underwent a sharp decline, thereby depriving sylvatic rodents of sufficient grass to sustain their high population density. Hence, the plague pathogen and its vectors needed an alternative host to maintain their activity. Anthropogenic factors, including international trade and military campaigns along Central Asian trade routes, may also have contributed to the outbreak and spread of the plague. The Issyk-Kul’ mortality crisis ties into wider questions about the origins and initial spread of plague after the “big bang” of the thirteenth century, whereby four new plague branches emerged (possibly in Central Asia).

Journal of Interdisciplinary History: Volume 50, Issue 1

Publication date01/06/2019
Publication date online23/05/2019
Date accepted by journal12/11/2018

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Professor Philip Slavin

Professor Philip Slavin

Professor, History