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Yersinia pestis, the Bacterium of Plague, Arose in East Asia. Did it Spread Westwards via the Silk Roads, the Chinese Maritime Expeditions of Zheng He or over the Vast Eurasian Populations of Sylvatic (Wild) Rodents?


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DOI https://doi.org/10.13173/jasiahist.47.1.0001




University of Oslo

1 Ole J. Benedictow, What Disease was Plague? On the Controversy over the Microbiological Identity of Plague Epidemics of the Past (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 381–395. This is a discipline in rapid development; one of the 43 studies published in recent years is cited in n. 2, below. A complete presentation of all paleobiological plague studies published by the end of 2012 appears in appendix 1 of my forthcoming monograph The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemics in the Scandinavian Countries: Perspectives and Controversies (Versita: 2013).

2 Stephanie Haensch [Hänsch], Raffaela Bianucci, Michel Signoli et al. [with Barbara Bramanti in the final position of senior author and coordinator], “Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death”, PLoS Pathogens 6 (October 2010), pp. 1–8, esp. p. 5.

3 Ole J. Benedictow, “The Justinianic Plague Pandemics: Progress and Problems”, Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009), pp. 543–548, esp. pp. 547–548.

4 Giovanna Morelli, Yajun Song, Camila J. Mazzoni et al., “Yersinia pestis Genome Sequencing Identifies Patterns of Global Phylogenetic Diversity”, Nature Genetics 42 (December 2010), pp. 1140–1143. Published online (31 October 2010), pp. 1-4; doi: 10, 1038/ng.705, Online Methods, 2 pages.

5 The FSU is an unusual geographical term in a context that does not relate to recent political history. If this involves territories of the Soviet republics that became independent after the dissolution of the SU, for instance, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, one should be more specific. The expression also raises the question why the term Russia was not used, whether the reason was that it may carry political overtones. The term China is equally vague. It may include territories which did not form part of the area controlled by the Han Chinese in earlier times, for instance, Tibet, Manchuria, Mongolia/Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang; again, such a term could imply a very “special” political connotation. Western scholars are not always aware of these problems while Chinese scholars will treat them them more carefully. — That Y. pestis originated somewhere within this vast area does not in itself prove that China was visited by plague epidemics; rather, it must be established as a working hypothesis dependent in an ordinary way on specific relevant empirical verification for being transformed into a statement on reality at some level of tenability. See Lester K. Little, “Review Article: Plague Historians in Lab Coats”, Past & Present 213 (Nov. 2011), pp. 267–290, esp. 281–282, 284. See also below pp. 4–5, n. 11, and p. 17, n. 63.

6 The authors' reference n. 15, “Silkroad Foundation. The Bridge between Eastern and Western Cultures. (2009) (http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/toc/index.html).”.

7 In n. 16 the authors refer to Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405–1433 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

8 Personal communications with Roderich Ptak (Munich) and Mathieu Torck (Ghent). Also see Roderich Ptak's cautioning words that Levathes's book can be considered “a pleasant mixture of facts and fiction”. See Fei Hsin (Fei Xin, author), John Vivian Gottlieb Mills (tr.), Ptak (ed.), Hsing-ch'a sheng-lan. The Overall Survey of the Star Raft (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1996), pp. 22–23.

9 Mark Achtman, Kerstin Zurth, Giovanna Morelli et al., “Yersinia pestis, the Cause of Plague, is a Recently emerged Clone of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96 (1999), pp. 14043–14048;

10 Areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. See Eugene Tikhomirov, “Epidemiology and Distribution of Plague”, in Plague Manual: Epidemiology, Distribution, Surveillance and Control (Geneva: WHO, 1999), pp. 11–42, esp.15 (map showing world distribution of plague foci) 16, 18–20; Norman Gratz, “Rodent Reservoirs & Flea Vectors of Natural Foci of Plague”, ibid. pp. 63–96, esp. 69, 71–72. See also map on home page whocc-plague.

11 Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death. A Complete History (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press. 2004), pp. 35–54. Little, “Plague Historians in Lab Coats”, maintains that the earliest mention of plague in Chinese sources in the medical compendium of 610 CE “essentially repeats a passage from a similar work of the third century BC”. Since the earlier work is not identified and this work is not mentioned in his reference which is identical to mine, this interesting point appears unsubstantiated.

12 Lien-Teh Wu, “Historical Aspects”, esp. pp. 10–13.

13 Benedictow, The Black Death, pp. 42–43.

14 See above n. 5.

15 Robert Pollitzer and Karl F. Meyer, “The Ecology of Plague”, in Jacques M. May (ed.), Studies in Disease Ecology (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1961), pp. 433–590, esp. 462.

16 Ibid., p. 440.

17 Ibid., pp. 461–462; Robert Pollitzer, Plague (Geneva: WHO, 1954), pp. 321–322.

18 L. Fabian Hirst, The Conquest of Plague (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), pp. 172, 182, 242–243, 302–314, 320, 322–323; 330–331, 352; Pollitzer, Plague, pp. 320-335, 387.

19 Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 151–193;

20 Owen Lattimore, Mongol Journeys (London: Jonathan Cape, 1941), pp. 148, 150.

21 Benedictow, What Disease was Plague, 151–193. See also Index: “Medium of transportation of infected rat fleas”; Hirst, The Conquest of Plague, pp. 310–311, 316–320, 366–368;

22 Hirst, Conquest of Plague, pp. 322, 324, 330–331;

23 Ibid., pp. 468, n 78 and 32, pp. 584, 586.

24 R. Bruce Low, Reports and Papers on Bubonic plague. An Account of the Progress and Diffusion of Plague throughout the World, 1898–1901 (London: H.M.S.O., 1902);

25 Ian Marshall, Passage East (Charlotsville: Howell Press, 1997).

26 Owen Lattimore, The Desert Road to Turkestan (London: Methuen, 1928), pp. 50–51, 83–84, 100, 108–115;

27 Ole J. Benedictow, Plague in the Late Medieval Nordic Countries. Epidemiological Studies (Oslo: Middelalderforlaget, 1992, reprints 1993 and 1996), p. 165.

28 Lattimore, Desert Road, pp. 129, 159–160.

29 Yang Juping, “Alexander the Great and the Emergence of the Silk Road”, Silk Road 6 (Winter/Spring 2009), pp. 15–22.

30 Raoul McLaughlin, Rome and the Distant East. Trade routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China (London: Continuum UK, 2010), pp. 83–108.

31 Irene Good, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Richard H. Meadow, “New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization”, Archaeometry, 51 (2009), pp. 457–466.

32 A good map is in the Wikipedia entry on Axum. The article on the Silk Road in that source is well written.

33 Lionel L. Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei. Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

34 Georg Sticker, Abhandlungen aus der Seuchengeschichte und Seuchenlehre. Vol. 1, Part 1. Die Pest (Giessen: Alfred Tölpermann, 1908), pp. 17–23;

35 Dioscorides was a Greek army surgeon in the service of Emperor Nero (54–68 CE).

36 See Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 5, 313, 318, 320, 379, 625.

37 Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 537–550.

38 Sticker, Die Pest, pp. 1–22.

39 Ibid., pp. 19–20.

40 William D. Smith, “Hippocrates”, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

41 The Septuagint is the Koiné Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (OT), the earliest extant version produced in Alexandria between the 3rd and 2nd century BCE. See also Benedictow, The Black Death, pp. 35–37.

42 http://www.BibleGateway.com was searched for modern Anglophone Bible texts, which led to a footnoted “New International Version” of 2010, and a translation of the Septuagint on http://www.ecmarsh.com/lxx/.

43 A comment on this text in the New King James Version states: “Probably bubonic plague”.

44 Because of the sensitive sexual connotations, the verbatim translation of the Septuagint is that the Lord “smote them in their secret parts”. For an improbable interpretation as bacillary dysentery, see Benedictow, The Black Death, pp. 36–37.

45 Frederick Simon Bodenheimer, Animal Life in Palestine (Jerusalem: L. Mayer, 1935), p. 96; same, Animal and Man in Bible Lands (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), pp. 20–21, 110, 128, 177, 179;

46 Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 91–97.

47 Evagrius (author) J. Bidez and L. Parmentier (eds.), The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius with the Scholia (London: Methuen, 1898; reprints Amsterdam 1964, New York 1979), p. 177.

48 Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 15.

49 These plague foci were unstable, plague epidemics disappeared apparently from North Africa and the Middle East for centuries, for instance, before the Justinianic pandemic began in 541, and between 1057 and 1348.

50 Peter Sarris, “Bubonic Plague in Byzantium. The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources”, in Lester K. Little (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity. The Pandemic of 541–750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 119–132, esp. p. 123.

51 Felix A. Chami, “The Egypto-Graeco-Romans and Panchea/Azania: Sailing in the Erythraean Sea”, in P. Linden and A. Porter (eds.), Trade and Travel in the Red Sea Region (London: Society for Arabian Studies, 2004), pp. 93–104. See also above n. 29.

52 Sarris, “Bubonic Plague in Byzantium”, p. 123.

53 John Donolly Fage, A History of Africa (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), pp. 53–54.

54 Pollitzer, Plague, p. 29.

55 Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, p. 33.

56 See also Sticker, Die Pest, pp. 24–35.

57 Gerard Aboudharam, Michel Signoli, Eric Crubézy et al., “La mémoire des dents: le cas de la peste”, in M. Signoli, Dominique Chevé, Pascal Adalian et al. (eds.), Peste: entre épidémie et sociétés/Plague: Epidemics and Societies (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2007), pp. 207–215, esp. p 211. See the discussion of this topic in Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 42–43;

58 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), pp. 152–155, 272.

59 The name is transcribed erroneously probably in order to produce an amateurish adaptation to German pronunciation: it should be transcribed Khvol'sen (where l'represents the phonetic transcription of palatalized l, and Kh the Cyrillic letter X (pronounced j, as in Spanish Juan). There is no phonetic equivalent to w in Russian or the Cyrillic alphabet.

60 John Stewart and Samuel M. Zwemer, The Nestorian Missionary Enterprise: The Story of a Church on Fire (Madras: The Christian Literature Society for India, for T.T. & Clark, Edinburgh, 1928), p. 209;

61 See, for instance, McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, p. 155;

62 Norris, “East or West?”, p. 10, with specific references to Kvol'sen's works in n. 38.

63 Little, “Plague Historians in Lab Coats”, p. 271.

64 Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, pp. 48–52.

65 See, for example, Norris, “East or West?”, p. 13.

66 Ibid., pp. 13-15; John Norris, “Response”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52 (1978), pp. 114–120. It was certainly not disseminated into the beleaguered town by catapulting the bodies of those who had died of plague. Benedictow, The Black Death, pp. 51–53.

67 Benedictow, The Black Death, map pp. xviii–xix, and Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, p. 2.

68 V. N. Fyodorov [often wrongly transcribed “Fedorov”], “The Question of the Existence of Natural Foci of Plague in Europe in the Past Past”, Journal of Hygiene, Epidemiology, Microbiology and Immunology, 4 (1960), pp. 135–141.

69 Konstantin Georgevich Vasil'yev and Aleksandr Yevseyevich Segal, Istoriya epidemiy v Rossii [History of Epidemics in Russia] (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoye izdatel'stvo meditsinskoy literatury, 1960), p. 28. My translation from Russian. The Bessermens are a small people living in northeastern Russia and do not fit into the pattern. The author may possibly have garbled the name of the people of Bezdezh.

70 See, for example, Frank Macfarlane Burnet and David Ogilvie White, Natural History of Infectious Disease (4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 226; Norris, “East or West?”, and Norris, “Response”.

71 Christos S. Bartsocas, “Two Fourteenth-century Descriptions of the ‘Black Death’”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 21 (1966), pp. 394–400, esp. pp. 395–396, 398.

72 Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, pp. 41, 51–52.

73 Benedictow, The Black Death, pp. 48–67.

74 I would like to thank Mathieu Torck for his kind and valuable comments on an earlier version of my discussion of Zheng He's maritime expeditions.

75 Above: p. 3.

76 Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions of the Early Fifteenth Century,” T'oung Pao 34 (1938), pp. 341–412, esp. pp. 342–344.

77 Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions”, T'oung Pao, 34 (1938), pp. 395–396;

78 Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 19–21, 149–151, 171.

79 Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, China's Discovery of Africa (London: A. Probsthain, 1949);

80 See above p. 3 and n. 7–8 with the references to Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 19–21, 80, 82–83.

81 See, for instance, Mills, Ma Huan, pp. 27–32;

82 Norman John Greville Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe (London: Longman Group LTD, 1974), pp. 370–372;

83 Pounds, Economic History of Medieval Europe, pp. 360–368;

84 Dols, Economic History of Medieval Europe, p. 60.

85 Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, p. 80.

86 Carlo M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution. European Society and Economy, 1000–1700 (London: Methuen & Co., 1976), pp. 164–165.

87 Church, “Zheng He: An Investigation”, pp. 1–2.

88 Ibid., p. 38.

89 See, for instance, Torck, Avoiding the Dire Straits, pp. 108, 137–144, 154, 172–173.

90 Ibid., pp. 13–17, 22–23. Gong Zhen's report is among the first hand accounts on Zheng He's voyages.

91 Ibid., pp. 14–16 and n. 55.

92 Ibid., p. 14.

93 Ibid., pp. 142–143.

94 Church, “Zheng He: An Investigation”, p. 14.

95 Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 587–588;

96 Torck, Avoiding the Dire Straits, pp. 157–158, 161.

97 Ibid., pp. 157, 161. For a somewhat different approach with regard to Malacca, see Roderich Ptak, “Reconsidering Melaka and Central Guangdong: Portugal's and Fujian's Impact on Southeast Asian Trade (Early Sixteenth Century)”, in Peter Borschberg (ed.), Iberians in the Singapore-Melaka Area and Adjacent Regions (16th to 18th Century) (Wiesbaden and Lisbon: Harrassowitz Verlag and Fundação Oriente, 2004), pp. 1–21, esp. pp. 3–5.

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid., pp. 16, 166–167,.

100 There is a reference to sick soldiers on board Zheng He's ships in a late Ming novel (preface 1597), but this is a fictitious source and not a historical book. See Luo Maodeng, Sanbao taijian Xiyang ji (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe, 1995), chapter 19.

101 Fage, History of Africa, p. 255.

102 John Iliffe, Africans. The History of a Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 136.

103 David W. Galenson, Traders, Planters, and Slaves. Market Behaviour in Early English America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 37–51.

104 McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, p. 272.

105 John Hatcher, Plague, Population and the English Economy 1348–1530 (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1977; several reprints 1982–1987), p. 21.

106 Gustav Storm (ed.), Islandske Annaler indtil 1578 (Christiania [= Oslo]: Det norske historiske Kildeskriftfond, 1888; rpt. 1977), p. 275.

107 Benedictow, What Disease was Plague?, pp. 493–552.

108 Dols, Economic History of Medieval Europe, p. 60.

109 CDC [Centers of Disease Control and Protection], 2012: “Maps and Statistics: Plague in the United States”, http://www.cdc.gov/plague/maps/index.html; WHO Expert Committee on Plague, WHO Technical Report Series 447 (1970), p. 6; Allan M. Barnes, T. J. Quan, Jack D. Poland, “Plague in the United States, 1984”, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Supplement 34 (1985), pp. 9S–14S.

110 McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, p. 145.

111 Jack D. Poland, “Plague”, in Paul D. Hoeprich (ed.). Infectious Diseases (Philaldelphia: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 1227–1237, esp. 1230;

112 McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, pp. 145–146.

113 WHOCC-Plague, 2012. Global Distribution of Plague 1970–2000. Home page on plague on WHO's website.

114 V. N. Fyodorov [often wrongly transcribed “Fedorov”], “Plague in Camels and its Prevention in the USSR,” Bulletin of the WHO 23 (1960), pp. 275–281;

115 Eva Panagiotakopulu, “Pharaonic Egypt and the Origins of Plague”, Journal of Biogeography 31 (2004), pp. 269–375.

116 Ibid.

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