Old anthropology’s acquaintance with human-microbial encounters: Interpretations and methods

Andrea Butcher

Early anthropology conventionally dealt in accounts of how human-material relations configure ‘being human’, developing theories to explain cultural organisation, social practices, symbolic systems and collective meaning-making. In this chapter, I ask whether early anthropology tells us anything about ‘being microbial’. Do the ethnographies of yesteryear provide insights into how microbes have shaped social worlds and lives across time and space? As we explore the different ways that ethnography can give space and voice to our microscopic companions, I revisit ethnographies underpinned by classical anthropological approaches and search for evidence of how microbes are imagined, defined, explained and encountered cross-culturally.

I had initially planned to examine this question by revisiting classic structural anthropology texts dealing in notions of purity and pollution to search for hidden microbial transcripts (descriptions of microbial agency on the one hand, and the social, ritual and magical practices that determine the appropriate place for microbial matter on the other) lurking in these accounts. My chosen texts were Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966) and Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus (1972), given the emphasis on notions of purity, impurity and pollution within them. These texts deal with concepts of ‘matter out of place’, and being key in any anthropological training programme, I thought they were bound to yield hidden microbial transcripts. But after an initial review of the material, this didn’t seem to be the case. Rather, they appeared to approach these questions via abstract, immaterial elements of cultural systems, with substance being incidental to rules governing social order and the maintenance of social boundaries.

Instead, I decided to look again at ethnographic texts that influenced my own enquiry during my doctoral research, in which I examined social transformation at the nexus of development, environment and Buddhist religious practice in Ladakh, the Indian Himalaya. These texts were authored by Sophie Day (1989), Martin Mills (2003), Stan Royal Mumford (1989) and Maria Phylactou (1989). With the exception of Mumford (1989), these ethnographies were conducted in Ladakhi villages during the 1980s and 1990s, prior to road connectivity to the urban centres of Leh and Kargil.1 The site of Mumford’s ethnography (1989) was the mountain valleys of Manang district in Nepal. Because these texts shared remarkably similar descriptions of the social and ritual landscape, they shaped my analysis of how democracy, global governance and planned development are conceptualised and performed in Himalayan Buddhist regions. My analysis was further influenced by a destructive cloudburst during the fieldwork phase in 2010, the causes of which were explained using concepts of purity and pollution defined by multiple climate perspectives: scientific, ethical (more specifically karmic) and autochthonous. Now that the direction of my own intellectual enquiry has turned towards knowing microbes, I consider here the ways my Ladakhi respondents might sense, and make sense of, these microscopic entities. If it is possible to discern autochthonous, ethical and scientific explanations in local descriptions of climate (Butcher 2017a), then why not an autochthonous and ethical microbiology?

Proponents of multispecies ethnographic and new materialist approaches pose new questions of matter, agency, ontology and relationality, making it possible to place microbes in more prominent ethnographic positions (Giraldo Herrera 2018; Gilbert, Sapp, and Tauber 2012; Haraway 2015; Hird 2009; Tsing et al. 2017). Where previously, microbes were treated as ‘bare life’ – without sentience and thus not capable of intentionality – these microscopic others are now permitted their own biographies and political lives (Giraldo Herrera 2018; Kirksey and Helmreich 2010). Inspired by these new ontological possibilities, I use this chapter to practice a microbial queering – or bacterialising – of old ethnography, re-evaluating my previous interpretations of cultural data by returning to earlier Himalayan Buddhist ethnographies to ask how things could be otherwise. I approach them with fresh eyes, searching for multispecies assemblages in my interpretation of landscape history in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, while retaining the binary categories of purity and pollution as optics for seeking out microbial transcripts in the descriptions of human and other-than-human nurturing or polluting behaviours, and their subsequent outcomes.

I begin by briefly examining the texts of Douglas (1966) and Dumont (1972), attending to some of the criticisms. I argue that their approach lacks a material and sensorial aspect, which I attempt to provide in the subsequent sections as I search for microbial transcripts lurking in ethnographic detail that indicate how human-microbial relations were (and continue to be) perceived and enacted. I then compare the ethnographic descriptions and the concepts used with new theories of human and microbial personhood being advanced by multispecies ethnographers and biology philosophers. I move on to ask if it is possible to ‘bacterialise’ old ethnography; whether by reinterpreting the symbolic underpinnings of discriminatory behaviours described, and representations of social order analysed, binaries can provide insights into the different ways human societies conceptualise and identify microscopic companions. I conclude by arguing that such an approach can elucidate perceptions of, and responses to, medical and ecological vulnerabilities in the Anthropocene.

Structural anthropology

Pink et al. (2015: 3) have asserted that in order ‘[t]o engage in a particular approach to ethnography, we need to have a theory of the world that we live in’. For structural anthropologists, that theory was rational, systematic, psychological and human. Structural anthropology rose to prominence in the post-war era of the twentieth century, departing from previous anthropological theory by privileging pattern over substance. Its principal protagonist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, wished to establish anthropology’s credentials as a rational discipline of scientific repute. For Lévi-Strauss, anthropology’s primary task was to reveal the underlying patterns of human thought, the characteristics of which he argued were universal, and which produced the cultural categories that carry social meaning and organise social relations. Influenced by Saussurean linguistics, Lévi-Strauss sought to understand the relationship between opposing ideas and their resolution via rules of marriage and kinship, mythology and ritual. He undertook this task through an analysis of ethnographic data in existing texts, rather than by conducting his own empirical research. What resulted was an elegant but highly abstract method for analysing cultural systems, built on rational rather than empirical foundations (Barnard 2000: 127).

This resolution of opposites set the tone for other structural anthropological enquiries. Douglas and Dumont both drew upon Lévi-Strauss’ method for their own theorising. Like Lévi-Strauss, they compared ethnographic accounts, searching for patterns that (they argued) were shared cross-culturally (or in Dumont’s case across the Hindu subcontinent). Both interpreted social relations as structured according to rules of inclusion and exclusion, boundary maintenance and a resolution of ambiguities. While both writers were interested in classifications of purity and pollution, both rejected the possibility that these structures had any foundation in pre-scientific conceptions of hygiene and public health. For example, in Purity and Danger (1966: 30), Douglas denied the existence of medical materialism as the cause of disease in the nineteenth century, arguing that prior to the establishment of germ theory any association with contemporary public health and hygiene codes was coincidental.2 Instead, her analysis of dirt and order rested on observable patterns evidenced in the symbolic action of any given culture, ‘primitive’ or modern, which (she argued) had no hygienic basis for discrimination. In Homo Hierarchicus (1972: 60), Dumont similarly critiqued the reification of concepts of pure and impure with European epistemologies of hygiene, instead seeking out universal elements of the Hindu caste system and arguing that the notions and categories of purity and impurity evident in social hierarchies had an ideological rather than material or hygienic basis.

Contributors to this volume similarly trouble such hygienist reductionism, although where we diverge from Douglas and Dumont is over the question of whether a rejection of hygienist reductionism leads to the a priori assertion of an inability to perceive microbes. And if microbes can only be understood with reference to germ theory and public hygiene codes, does this render all relations with them essentially negative? Giraldo Herrera (2018: 89) suggests otherwise with his assertion that ‘[…] our relations with microbes are complex and not restricted to dealing with filth, disease, or contagion’. In his historical enquiry into the biosemiotics of Amerindian shamanism, Giraldo Herrera explored the possibility that microbes develop their own processes of interpretation, communication and meaning-making (ibid.). Critical of early anthropology’s religious-symbolic reductionism (a hangover, he argues, of Judeo-Christian theology), Giraldo Herrera instead looks for continuities between animistic practices and modern scientific epistemologies (or what he calls syncretic ontologies), seeking out contact points between the knowledge of Amerindian shamans and scientific theories of contagion.3 He argues that, rather than being discovered by the scientific revolution, microbes were instead observed and interpreted in novel ways by the scientific revolution and thus assigned different characteristics by it.

Giraldo Herrera’s propositions resonate with my own re-evaluation of the way I had been interpreting Himalayan Buddhist social worlds, and I keep them in mind during my search for hidden microbial transcripts in the chosen ethnographies. In their work, each writer attends to different aspects of village life. For example, Day (1989) examines the phenomenon of the oracle (the possession of human bodies by territorial divinities) and the liminal position of village oracles between diagnoses of demonic affliction on the one hand, and the reverence offered to monastic oracles on the other. Phylactou (1989) examines both the familial and architectural structures of household organisation and marriage as ritual exchange. Her analysis focuses on how the symbolism observable in social and architectural structures mirrors representations of local cosmology and the different planes of activity therein. Mumford (1989) analyses Buddhist monasticism in a Nepalese village and its ongoing dialogue with an older shamanic practice of a neighbouring village. His ethnography produced insights into how Buddhist authority in Tibetan communities rests on the ability of monastic incumbents to control terrestrial – or chthonic – divinities. Mills expands upon this with his examination of the nature of authority in Tibetan Buddhist monasticism, the foundations of which, he argues, rest on a concept of personhood in which people are embedded within and constituted by ‘a matrix of chthonic forces and sources of symbolic power’ (2003: 243).

In their own way, each of these ethnographies demonstrated the historical and intimate connection between human activity and the demeanour of these other-than-human entities who are instrumental in determining the fortunes of worldly endeavours (a theme that I extended to practices of the local development institutions, see Butcher 2015). The authors analysed their data religio-symbolically for the most part, examining concepts of order and disorder, boundaries, and social and ritual practices, like Douglas and Dumont. Despite their distinct focuses, their descriptions of cosmology and numinal entities were almost identical. I therefore practise a reinterpretation of the ethnographic data in relation to descriptions of environments where microbes reside, and the relationships Himalayan Buddhist persons have with them. It is also possible (and presumably more plausible) to search for microbial transcripts in practices of Sowa Rigpa (the Tibetan Buddhist system of medicine) or in the geomantic rituals that are influenced by the Chinese astrological system. For reasons of space, I concentrate on social relations and ritual practices relating to my doctoral research – managing climates and environments in challenging times. These include environments and elements whose microbiomes are the subject of scientific scrutiny, for example soils and water (e.g. Bass et al. 2019). They also include atmospheres through the concept of bioprecipitation, or rainmaking bacteria (Morris et al. 2014), whereby bacteria living on plant surfaces are disturbed (whether by winds or human-related activities such as harvesting) and carried into the atmosphere where they provoke precipitation in the form of rain, snow or hail (Giraldo Herrera 2018; Schnell and Tan-Schnell 1982). Similarly, earth systems and Gaian theory demonstrates how atmospheric regulation is a multispecies biotic endeavour that bacteria participate in (Hird 2009: 120; Tsing 2015: 22). As we shall see in the ethnographies, local weather conditions are also the subject of blessing and pollution concerns, and relations with chthonic divinities.

The field

Ladakh is a high-altitude desert in India’s Western Himalaya. The region was an independent Buddhist kingdom with monastic links to Tibet until 1846, when it was annexed by the Dogra rulers of Jammu during the British Imperial period. The territory was absorbed into the Indian Union in 1947; it formed part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir until 2019, when it was granted Union Territory status and separated from the rest of the State. Ladakh’s Buddhist demographic has the majority but only just; there is also a sizeable Muslim population, a small Christian population and a strong military presence due to its position on disputed border territories with Pakistan and China. Prior to 1947, the mainstay of Ladakh’s economy was agriculture, with some modest trade links towards China in the East and Central Asia to the West. Agriculture was fed by glacial melt waters, with households cultivating the few grains and vegetables hardy enough to withstand the harsh growing conditions. Once part of the Indian Union, Ladakh became the recipient of state-led development interventions, and the economy has since diversified to include military, administrative and NGO occupations, with further employment opportunities offered by its formidable tourist sector. Until recently, Ladakh’s climate was characterised by long, frozen winters (with night-time temperatures plummeting to -20oC or below) and warm, dry summers. Over the past 15 years, however, the region has experienced warmer, more humid winters and the intrusion of the Indian monsoon in summertime months.

Once open to foreign visitors in 1973, Ladakh began attracting Tibetologists along with other academic and independent researchers, lured by the ease of access compared to the now restricted Tibetan plateau, and the opportunities for researching Tibetan monasticism – and the village life attached to it – in situ. As a result, a wealth of literature exists on social life in the region, ranging from village ethnographies to contemporary studies of climate and the environment, religion and cultural heritage, and the implications of political change and development. My research straddled each of these themes, building upon previous ethnographic work that explicitly connected the practices of Tibetan monasticism to the formation and maintenance of relationships in an autochthonous social world (Day 1989; Mills 2003; Mumford 1987; Phylactou 1989). I was interested in how these relationships were being reshaped as part of the experience of Indian statehood and planned development (Butcher 2015, 2017a, 2017b). As stated already, as my research progressed, I began questioning whether it was accurate to apprehend autochthonous entities in purely religious terms, noting instead epistemological confluence in descriptions of what ‘made’ weather (Butcher 2017a). The shift occurred following the 2010 cloudburst and subsequent flash flooding, which claimed 300 human lives,4 unknown animal and livestock lives, and devastated property and farmland. Following the disaster, I kept hearing how the lha-lu – the mountain deities and autochthonous inhabitants of the region – had sent the flood, a retributive act protesting at the ritual, moral and material pollution caused by human activities.

Now, I am interested in whether divine retributive explanations can also take on a biological form, for example in accounts of ecological damage and infectious diseases sent by chthonic entities with guardianship over rocks, trees, soils, water, foodstuffs and medicinal plants. In the following section, I invite the reader to conceptualise a social world in which the descriptions of these entities can be interpreted as more than symbolic (even as they are mediated symbolically), and that despite being institutionalised in household, village, and monastic ritual practices, microbes are indeed lurking in the detail.

Hidden microbial transcripts

A principal theme running through all descriptions of Tibetan Buddhist social and cultural life is the ritual relationship that individuals, lay households and temple households (monasteries, in other words) have with the chthonic inhabitants with whom they share their domain – the mountain deities, soil owners and water spirits. While there is much variation in classification and nomenclature of deity cults across the Himalaya, a ubiquitous feature is the partition of physical space into a three-tiered cosmology of a heavenly realm (stenglha), a middle realm (barsam), and a watery underworld (yoklu). These are distinct realms with distinct inhabitants. Nevertheless, they are interconnected, and activities in the middle realm, where humans and animals reside, have consequences for the upper and lower realms. Conversely, inhabitants of these realms can determine the conditions of the middle realm such as health, wealth, fertility and climate. In Ladakh, for example, the mountain divinities residing in the heavenly realm, the yullha, are guardians of the physical domain. They control weather and water, sending snow in the winter and sun in the spring to melt the snow and irrigate the crops. They have authority over minor spirits in the lower realms, so it is important not to offend them. The lower realms, the yoklu, are home to the landlords of the soil or ‘foundation owners’ (sadag and zhidag), and the water spirits (lu). Represented as fish, snakes or lizards, these entities inhabit soils, plants and water, and are associated with fertility, abundance and nourishment. Also, as Day (1989: 62) points out, they belong to the annual cycle of renewal, growth, depletion and death. Further divinities of note are the household gods, or p’alha. The p’alha are sensitive to the breaching of household boundaries, for example during liminal states of birth, marriage and death. Their shrines, located at the apex of the house, contain a vase filled with grain and pierced by an arrow, symbolising the fertility and wealth of the household. During the annual renewal of the vase’s contents, swollen grain is a sign of successful harvest, while dehydrated and rotten grains indicate problems for the household (Day 1989: 159; Mills 2003: 158; Phylactou 1989: 76).

Boundaries of the realms are regularly crossed, for example yullha are brought down and housed in shrines on mountain passes or at the peak of the village. Many are pressed into service as defenders of the Buddhist doctrine, with some appearing as oracles to assist monastic rulers in their daily ministrations (Day 1989; Mills 2003; Mumford 1989). Others form part of the healthcare system, offering diagnoses for bodily afflictions, remedies for the removal of poisons and so forth (Day 1989; Mills 2003). The boundaries can be crossed in the opposite direction as well; in Ladakh some yullha are believed to be Buddhist monks and nuns (Mills 2003: 249), while in other parts of the Himalaya they are local ancestors (Yeh and Coggins 2014). Purification of demonic entities signifies another cosmological boundary shift (Day 1989). Similarly, the lu follow families into their homes, where they watch over grain stores and the kitchen hearth where the stove is placed (ibid.: 63). Thus, the success of agriculture, preservation of food, and the health and wealth of the household are reliant on maintaining friendly relations with the chthonic inhabitants with whom villagers share the realm. However, these entities are highly sensitive to offensive pollution of various kinds, and the ritual removal of pollution is a continuous activity in the middle realm.

Blessing and pollution

Matter in and out of place is either sanctified or afflicted by invisible sources of blessing and misfortune: chinlab and dip. Both essences are made manifest by human activities occurring in the middle realm, for example embodied practices of devotion, or polluting practices associated with agriculture, foodstuffs, animal husbandry and construction (including of temples and shrines). Yet bodies and matter associated with all three realms – humans, non-human animals, soils, water and weather – are sensitive to their effects. Mumford’s ethnography (1989: 97) describes chinlab as an essence from a primal era of blessing, traces of which are found in the present. Sources of chinlab include sacred valleys, mountains or lakes, and caves where incarnate masters are said to have meditated (ibid.: 97). Buddhist stupas, statues and enlightened masters (for example the Dalai Lamas, and other high masters or reincarnated yogins) are containers for chinlab. Chinlab can be planted; for example, when water, soil or herbal medicines gathered from sacred sites are ‘brought back to the village to empower the health of the family or to be put into the fields to make them more fertile’ (Mumford 1989: 77). Ethnographic accounts describe chinlab as falling like rain, or flowing like a stream from above, cleansing and purifying the territory and its inhabitants and creating the proper conditions for agriculture (Day 1989: 57; Mills 2003: 160; Mumford 1989: 97; Phylactou 1989: 62).

Conversely, health afflictions and unfortunate events are attributed to chinlab’s opposite, dip, a polluting essence that accumulates in individual bodies, households and territories. Dip results from activities that are ritually polluting, for example when social hierarchies are undermined or household and cosmological boundaries are crossed (Day 1989; Phylactou 1989). Morally or karmically polluting character traits include selfishness and failure to respect the Buddhist teachings. However, dip also manifests when certain activities are performed without due concern for the welfare of chthonic entities, thus causing offence. Mumford (1989: 101–02) describes offences and harm towards them that require human action to repair the damage: poisoning lakes and digging the earth, or urinating, defecating and washing too close to their homes. One must seek permission from the foundation owners (sadag and zhidag) before digging the land for agriculture or construction. These concerns remain today, with development personnel expressing concern that people were no longer seeking chthonic permission ahead of activities such as implementing novel agricultural interventions (Butcher 2015). Furthermore, people were concerned that new kinds of economic activity were creating new forms of pollution that offended their chthonic neighbours, for example poor sanitation infrastructures and solid waste disposal, or exhausts emitted by motor vehicles and aeroplanes due to unregulated urbanisation and an expanding tourist sector (Butcher 2017b). Increasing numbers of tourists and military personnel caused further unease; as visitors, these groups do not understand how to behave in places where the chthonic entities reside, defiling their homes by throwing rubbish or urinating and defecating close to streams, lakes, shrines or on high passes.

Such pollution invites dangerous retribution from the various guardians of weather, water and soils. Individual cases of dip are experienced as skin diseases such as such as boils, leprosy and so forth, inflicted upon them by capricious sadag and lu (Mumford 1989: 101–2; Mills 2003: 289). When dip contaminates the territorial homes of mountain deities, they become offended and dangerously retributive, sending afflictions in the form of pestilence or disasters such as earthquakes, avalanches, hailstorms and floods, for example the 2010 cloudburst (Butcher 2013; Mills 2003: 206; Mumford 1989: 135–7). Many of my own respondents were concerned that new forms of pollution produced by economic activities and social practices associated with Indian state development were stimulating greater concentrations and widespread distribution of dip. They were afraid that the lha-lu were becoming increasingly offended by changes in physical, ritual (and karmic!) pollution, and this was making them dangerously retributive, sending warmer winters, less snowmelt for irrigation, and devastating rainfall (Butcher 2013, 2017a). They complained of deteriorating water quality or new illnesses that local practitioners of the Tibetan medicine system did not recognise and thus could not diagnose or treat (2009, personal communication). Without the support of these invisible entities, productive and reproductive life was not possible. Indian state development now forms part of productive and reproductive life.

Restoring order

Restoring normal relations with chthonic village folk requires ritual remediation to eliminate or neutralise pollution and restore blessing. This is managed either with immediate or daily removal (for example purification of households and temples with juniper smoke or offerings of water for bathing the divinities), purification ceremonies (following a ritually determined period of confinement) or activities to restore blessing (such as prostration, circumambulation, or similar performances of veneration). However, it can also take the form of offerings made as apologies, which can include foods known for their beneficial microbial communities, such as barley dough, fermented foods such as beer (Day 1989: 137, 145; Mumford 1989: 128; Phylactou 1989: 137) or white sweet foods such as milk and yoghurt (Day 1989: 63; Mumford 1989: 101–2; Phylactou 1989: 56). More recently, the response to stronger, more destructive concentrations of dip has been to increase the frequency and intensity of ceremonies and performances for replenishing chinlab. These mainly take the conventional form of financial sponsorship of new statues, stupas, or participation in mass prayer festivals. However, novel activities associated with climatic and environmental protection are also increasingly in evidence, such as the record-breaking tree-planting events organised by international social movement ‘Live to Love’ in 2010 and 2012, when the movement’s founder, exiled Tibetan religious leader the Gyalwang Drukpa, simultaneously performed religious empowerments (Butcher 2017a). Local residents associated both the establishment of these immature woodlands and the attendant empowerment ceremonies with the cleansing and purification of atmosphere where the yullha have their homes, thus restoring their friendship and preventing a recurrence of the terrible cloudburst that occurred in 2010 (ibid.).

Chthonic persons

Regional anthropologists (myself included) have translated the entities inhabiting this lively autochthonous domain as kinds of numina. Relationships with them continue to be mediated using symbolic sources of power in a ritualised environment conditioned by concepts of blessing and pollution. Humans are conceived as chthonic persons (Mills 2003), intimately bound to the other-than-humans with whom they share residence in the tripartite cosmology, and who can nurture chinlab, generate pollution or invite retributive action. Put another way, people’s behaviours either nurture health and abundance or produce dangerous situations of dearth and dysbiosis, while these invisible chthonic entities are associated with elements whose microbiomes are the subject of scientific scrutiny. This hints at some kind of microbial relationship – for better or for worse.

Here, I briefly compare the ethnographic details presented above to alternative concepts of both microbial and human personhood being posited by multispecies ethnographers and science philosophers, to seek out resonance and fresh interpretive possibilities. Giraldo Herrera (2018: 69–71) invites us to perceive the ‘cellular souls and microbial spirits’ inhabiting and participating in an environment that includes human and non-human animals, plants, soils, water sources, atmospheres and so forth. These cellular souls and microbial spirits attack, appease, communicate, take advantage of and compete for resources (ibid.: 71). They reproduce and proliferate under favourable conditions, sleep when resources are scarce, direct currents of air and determine precipitation (ibid.). Giraldo Herrera’s explanations are analogous to the descriptions found in the ethnographies examined above, in which the writers illustrate the different ways that Ladakh’s chthonic persons interact to influence the conditions and dynamics of the elements. Yullha send snowmelt and rain to fall onto the ground below, rendering it fertile; the sadag, zhidag, and lu nourish the soils, nurture agriculture and watch over stored foods, preventing them from spoiling. The ethnographies go as far as describing their winter hibernation when the ground is frozen and resources are low (Day 1989: 62; Mumford 1989: 104; Phylactou 1989: 56). They are sensitive to environmental pollution, leading to dangerously retributive action that includes meteorological events such as cloudbursts and hailstorms (Butcher 2013, 2015, 2017b). Failure to make appropriate reparations results in skin diseases, failed harvests and ecological ruin (Day 1989: 470; Mills 2003: 289; Mumford 1989: 101–2; Phylactou 1989: 57). These beings have intention, social hierarchies, processes of interpretation and ways of making sense of the world, qualities that Giraldo Herrera claims microbes also possess (2018: viii, 41).

Mills’ (2003) concept of chthonic personhood resonates with novel theories of immunity and identity. Mills examined chthonic personhood in the context of Buddhist ritual practice and monastic authority, although I suggest one can also read this concept microbially. He described Lingshed’s villagers as belonging to a ‘fertile chthonic territory’ (ibid.: 249), embedded in ritual relations with a variety of divinities and numina – a situated and distributed chthonic agency, where absolute separation between humans and territorial divinities cannot be assumed. This latter point is explained using the anthropological theory of gift exchange whereby, during ritual offerings, some essence of the giver is also transferred:

In the Himalayan context, the complex and life supporting relations of exchange between man and landscape […] means that both the concerns and the identity of the supernatural and the human become intertwined (ibid.: 258).

This ecological representation of chthonic agency, encapsulating human and other-than-human actors and their capacities, chimes with new philosophical and biological insights into human-microbial relations that challenge normative definitions of identity and the discrete individual. For example, new theories of immunology posit mammalian organisms to be heterogeneous ecosystems, comprising microbial as well as mammalian cells and genes (Giraldo Herrera 2018: 69; Lorimer 2016; Pradeu 2012). These organisms are constantly interacting with, open to, and partially constituted by their environments via openings in the digestive, reproductive, excretory and respiratory systems (Pradeu 2012). Bioscientists David Bass et al. (2019), philosophers of biology Méthot and Alizon (2014) and more-than-human geographer Jamie Lorimer (2016) each examine the role environmental and human microbiomes play in regulating health and metabolic processes. These writers use ecological models for human-animal-microbe relations, in which health or disease are a consequence of the dynamic interaction of multiple symbionts, host and environment. Gilbert, Sapp and Tauber (2012) use their holobiont (multicellular eukaryotes plus their microbial symbionts) concept to challenge normative biological categorisations of living entities. I suggest the holobiont also challenges anthropological categorisations of other-than-human behaviour as numinal, for example where diagnostic practice, disease causality and cure are interpreted as supernatural presence. Nor would it be possible to discuss chthonic persons without reference to science feminist Donna Haraway’s proposal to engage in a process of re-worlding in the chthulucene, an epoch of sympoetic (becoming with) collaborations between humans and multiple chthonic companions for overcoming the diverse planetary systems crises wrought by the Anthropocene (2015: 160). Through these examples, the concept of chthonic personhood resonates with Lorimer’s (2016: 58) statement that ‘being human is a multispecies achievement’.

I am aware of the dangers of reifying evidence to suit an argument. For reasons of space, I have made highly discriminative decisions about which practices to foreground, and as a result I have inevitably simplified descriptions and sidestepped nuances, which readers familiar with the Buddhist Himalaya will find frustrating. Many blessing and pollution manifestations cannot be attributed to microbial activity, and in these cases numinal explanations may more accurately reflect local concepts of world-making. Nevertheless, I hope also to have demonstrated that by analysing chthonic persons using religious concepts we similarly make assumptions about their numinal nature, and that reinterpretations foregrounding the possibility of microbial sensing can produce what Giraldo Herrera (2018: 81) describes as ‘alternative sources that bring additional perspectives through which we can address the reality and history of microorganisms’. I suggest that a microbial sensing of conditions is discernible in the ethnographies; soils, water, plants, food and even atmospheres all are places where microbes reside, interact, share information and evolve. Sadag, lu, microbes: all are invisible but lively social entities that can pollute, are affected by pollution and can respond in dysbiotic ways. They spoil food, cause disease and generate dangerous cloudbursts. They also grant fertility, nourish bodies and nurture earthly abundance. Analysing ethnographies from the perspective that people can sense microbes, can perceive their activities in particular environments, and that people become with microbes opens up possibilities for a more microbial understanding. It enables us to ask new questions of data and provides situated knowledge and explanations in circumstances of bodily and ecological dysbiosis, and the new human-microbial collaborations being forged therein.

Bacterialising old ethnography

If engaging in a particular approach to ethnography requires a theory of the world that we live in (Pink et al. 2015: 3), then in a dynamic and ever-changing world our theories need to be malleable and accommodating. Historically in anthropology, concepts of purity and pollution – and the matters and practices associated with them – have been analysed as religio-symbolic systems, which anthropologists utilised to draw inferences about structure and order in human societies. As shown above, new ways of thinking offered by new theories of immunology, biological identity and multispecies approaches are changing the way we think about microbes as lively entities, and our relationships with them. Therefore, if we are moving to more ecological and relational interpretations of human-microbe relations, is there any value in ‘bacterialising’ binaries in ethnographic data? Do concepts of purity and pollution still retain theoretical and methodological purpose?

I would say yes, depending on what the researcher wants to achieve. Douglas and Dumont approached social organisation from the concept of purity and impurity, which they applied to their search for patterns of behaviour and order in kinship rules, hierarchy, classification of matter and so forth. By retaining purity and pollution as symbolic concepts (as I have done here), we can find patches of data that shed light on how microbes have shaped social worlds and social lives across time and space; how they have been imagined, defined, explained and encountered cross-culturally, and their value for interpreting human-microbial experiences and relationships in the Anthropocene. In their collection of essays examining different Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Tsing et al. (2017) request that we pay attention to the multiple living arrangements of the human and more-than-human, using them to develop tools and methods for collaborative survival in a ‘more-than-human Anthropocene’. Using binaries such as pure and impure, or blessing and decay when searching for transcripts of human-microbial entanglements in previous ethnographic records helps us understand how different human societies conceptualise their worlds and relationships with the microscopic, and the multiple ways that humans and microbes experience and respond to crises of climate, ecology, medicine and health (either collaboratively or in tension). We can use binaries to follow how narratives, practices and explanations persist, shift or become entangled with other epistemologies of the Anthropocene found in the life and political sciences. In the Himalayas, are current health controversies such as antimicrobial resistance or viral pandemics being explained according to the presence of chinlab and dip? Are microbial transcripts apparent in the creation of storms being classified as forms of localised chthonic retributive action? When anthropologist Nils Bubandt states how ‘[i]n the Anthropocene, both climate science and biology seem to bring spirits, once thought to have been killed by secular thought, back to life […]’ (2017: 125), can a microbial interpretation turn those numina into cellular souls and microbial spirits?

Mary Douglas’ denial of medical materialism in premodern societies rested on the assumption that if microbes were the product of nineteenth century scientific discovery, they could not also be ontologically prior. How could her subjects possess the ability to sense microbes if they had not yet been ‘discovered’ and subsequently cultured in nineteenth century French laboratories? I have explored the possibility that the capacity to sense microbial practices is discernible in ethnographic descriptions of daily activities, ritual cycles, explanations of fortune and misfortune and descriptions of agricultural abundance. I have suggested retaining the binary concepts of purity and pollution where they attend to embodied practices and interactions, modes of relations, methods of discrimination, situated theories, cosmological representations and so forth. I hope to have demonstrated how, by returning to old anthropological accounts and recycling older concepts, ethnographers can produce fresh insights into how human-microbial relations were (and continue to be) perceived and enacted.

Transcription note

There are wide variations in pronunciation across the region. I have transcribed local terms according to Western Ladakhi pronunciation.


1 The village of Lingshed, where Mills (2003) conducted his ethnography, still lacks road connectivity.

2 Bruno Latour made a similar argument in his examination of how germ theory was established as the basis for hygiene practices and public health legislation, stating that microbes did not exist before ‘Pasteur made them up’ (1999: 147). In this ontological reasoning, microbes were brought into existence via the tools and the purpose of scientific discovery: the microscopes, scientific experiments, and the subsequent legislation governing microbial management in the public sphere.

3 Giraldo Herrera also criticises the radical alterity proposed by proponents of the ontological turn for its comparable separation of different modes of thought and being, which he argues removes the possibility for circulation and cross-fertilisation of ideas (2018: 3–8).

4 According to official figures at least, the true number will never be known.


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