December 5, 2016, by Matt

Unwanted cargo: Disease and climate along the Silk Road

Matt Jones and Christina Lee blog about their workshop in the summer to discuss disease and the environment. The blog first appeared @ 

Recent coverage of the Zika and Ebola outbreaks has again highlighted the uncertainties and fears of people regarding epidemics, as well as the need to understand cultural practices. There is now more than ever a need to understand human behavior in the spread of disease and a search for the controls which help it spread. Modern accelerating factors, due to our shrinking world linked to people’s ability to travel, perhaps intensify our worries about contemporary outbreaks of disease. Still, the ability to travel is not a new phenomenon, nor are outbreaks of disease that have global consequences, or global concerns.

Earlier this year we, a palaeoenvironmental scientist and a Viking and Anglo-Saxon expert, organised a cross-disciplinary workshop to investigate some of the broader issues around disease and the environment, looking at the issue through a historical, or palaeo, lense. We used Plague and the Silk Road as a focus for discussion. We both had interest in these areas – the Silk Road was a critical trade route for much of the last 2000 years, an interesting time focus for palaeoclimate research, and it has been hypothesized that climatic changes could have had an impact on the Justinian outbreak of plague. In the Viking Age one arm of the Silk Road connected Scandinavia with the Middle East. This period sees an extension of Europe across large parts of the globe, an extension that has not been completely understood. Did pandemic diseases, such as the Justinian plague, play a role in creating powerchanges and shifts that may have enabled such changes? No change is ever based on one reason alone, but it is worth asking whether climate and disease affected history.

Our workshop united visitors from three different countries (but six nations) and six different disciplines: philologists, historians, archaeologists, microbiologists, medical geographers and palaeoclimate specialists. It was interesting to hear about the research methods and outcomes in the varying disciplines and to discuss how such divergent fields may work together to draw a set of conclusions that can help to understand the past and prepare for the future. The next step for us is to move from discussion to research collaboration, and plenty of ideas were generated in just 24 hours of discussion.

One of our broader discussions was how we could best all work together given our diverse backgrounds and research foci. One of the things we all appreciated was listening to different experts discuss the uncertainties in their own areas of work. Uncertainties are a given in most approaches to a given subject, yet very few, if any of us have the time or capacity to fully appreciate the nuances of all methodologies and disciplines. To come to a fully rounded answer to a given research question therefore requires a coherent team of researchers pulling in the same direction – but from different starting points. Good interdisciplinary work, it appears, relies on good disciplinary work and good communication between project partners.

The workshop left us with lots to think about in terms of how people move and what they move – diseases, but also the knowledge and resources of how to treat them. This movement of people and resource, in multiple directions, has a long history and yet there are only certain times and certain places where there are substantial outbreaks of a given disease – why is that and what happens to the disease when these outbreaks stop?

There is a lot of discussion of this wider topic in the literature of multiple disciplines at the moment, such as recent work on the medieval Plague outbreak or the importance of rodents in spreading the Lassa virus. We hope our initial conversations with a multidisciplinary approach can add to these discussions in the future.

Silk road meal

According to some the odd drink can aid interdisciplinary research – getting a range of people in the same place is also a good place to start.

Our thanks to all the workshop participants and The University of Nottingham’s Life in Changing Environments Research Priority Area and The School of Geography for funding this workshop.








Posted in Uncategorized