Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
In Madagascar’s central highlands, outbreaks of bubonic plague occur annually. At the turn of the twentieth century, the French state’s outbreak control measures included a revision of mortuary practices for plague victims, and these rules persist even though they strain Malagasy relationships to deceased ancestors. The rules stipulate that plague victims may not be buried in familial tombs and may not be exhumed for secondary burial (a ritual called famadihana) or transferred for a period of at least seven years. Colonial scientists conjectured that Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium, could survive underground, so the disturbance of human remains posed a risk of outbreak.
Scientists today surmise that plague bacteria may survive in rat burrow systems, which leaves open the question of whether human corpses are implicated in the plague’s persistence in the environment. Scientists are keen to learn more about subterranean interspecies interactions, where rat burrows lead to plague pits, where amoebas and cadaver-feeding insects absorb bacteria, and where fleas and black rats infect one another with tainted blood. I argue that by politicizing the underground through its mortuary policy, the state intensified the perceived existential risk of plague—that is, the risk of vengeful ancestors--to the rural poor. Anthropologists of zoonosis have focused on dangerous human-nonhuman encounters that take place on the surface. A political ecology of the plague, however, compels the ethnographer to explore what lies beneath, seeking scientific insights into underground interspecies dynamics and topographies that may or may not lead to outbreaks.