Tragedy in the Amazon

Murdered U. of Vermont anthropologist was inspirational mentor and influential figure in archaeology.
August 16, 2005

James Petersen was known in the anthropology department at the University of Vermont, where he was chair, for giving things away. Journal articles, books, hours of time outside of class. He would do whatever it took to spread his love of anthropology and archaeology, a devotion that led him on many trips to the Amazon, where he was murdered Saturday, at the age of 51, during a robbery at a restaurant in the small rainforest town of Iranduba, Brazil.

“He once bought me a plane ticket to Brazil,” said Michael Heckenberger, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Florida. Heckenberger was one of Petersen’s students, in 1983, taking the undergraduate field school he taught at Vermont. Heckenberger used a word that seems to be on the tongue of everybody who talks about Petersen when they describe his enthusiasm: “infectious.”

Heckenberger caught the anthropology bug from Petersen, and eventually decided to do research in the Amazon. In 1989, Petersen and another colleague were taking a Christmas/New Year’s trip to Rio. Heckenberger needed to start learning Portuguese, but didn’t have money for the plane ticket, so Petersen picked up the tab. Heckenberger did end up working in the Amazon, and Petersen came to visit in 1994. “He was hooked,” Heckenberger said. “He was interested in everything. He was predisposed to getting hooked.”

So Heckenberger, Petersen, another of Petersen’s students, and a researcher from the University of Sao Paulo, began the Central Amazon Project, an effort that brought Petersen back to the jungle city of Manaus each of the next 10 years. “I never would have brought him there if I’d known this would happen,” Heckenberger said. But Heckenberger recalled that Petersen would always say “enjoy life,” and “do what you think is best,” and Petersen enjoyed the people and culture of the Amazon.

Though scientists abroad must always be wary, Laura Graham, chair of the American Anthropological Associations’ Committee for Human Rights, said deaths are extremely rare. “All travelers have to be careful,” she said. “But generally anthropologists are very knowledgeable about the area, and very skilled at dealing with difficult situations.” She said there have been a handful of murders in Latin America over the last few decades, but they have involved social anthropologists who become entangled in political webs. According to Stacy Lathrop, managing editor of Anthropology News, the most recent murder was that of Apoena Meirelles in Amazonia in October 2004. Meirelles, an “Indianist,” was appointed by the Brazilian government to investigate illegal diamond mining. He was shot outside an automatic teller machine. It still is not clear whether the murder was a robbery or an assassination.

In recent years, Petersen’s Amazon work drew wide attention, including a BBC special and an article in Science. The work of the Central Amazon Project challenged the widely held belief that the Amazon was a pristine habitat, largely uninhabitable, and unchanged by the indigenous people of the past. The project found sites with an extremely fertile soil called terra preta do indio, Portuguese for Indian black earth. Petersen and his colleagues believe that the soil was made purposely by complex civilizations dating back thousands of years. According to the theory, people partially burned fields to make charcoal, and used that and organic wastes to fertilize the soil. Amazon farmers today still seek out terra preta.

Lending support to the existence of ancient civilizations, Petersen and his colleagues found layers and layers of ornate pottery at the sites with terra preta. No matter how far afield he was, pottery was always close to Petersen’s heart.

Fellow anthropologists and archaeologists called Petersen the world’s foremost expert in the ceramics of the northeastern United States. Even though Petersen’s research took him often to the Amazon and the Caribbean – he was elected by his peers to the board of the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology -- he was tied to the Northeast. He taught at the University of Maine before coming to the University of Vermont, where he had earned his own undergraduate degree. And he loved doing research in New England.

"He’s leaving a big void,” said John Crock, director of Vermont’s Consulting Archaeology Program, and, not surprisingly, another former undergraduate student of Petersen’s. “It would take three or four people to replace his knowledge of ceramics.” That knowledge came from conventional sources, like scholarly journals, as well as conversations over a meal Petersen would share with elderly collectors whom other academics considered useless.

Perhaps longer lasting than any work that a single researcher could do will be what Petersen’s students have come to call the “Petersen Pathway.” While Heckenberger was being interviewed Monday, one of his graduate students stopped by -- and it was someone who had studied under Petersen at Vermont.

Back in Vermont, Jess Robinson, a research technician in the Consulting Archaeology Program, and a former Petersen student who works for Crock, another former Petersen student, was busy excavating a site. Like many who have trod the Petersen Pathway, Robinson recalls the “organic progression” with Petersen, from student/teacher, to mentor/mentee, to friends. “It didn’t matter if you were 25, or 85, if you loved archaeology,” he said.

Robinson remembered when he was in the field with Petersen and other students in Maine in 1998. At the time, scientists debated whether certain native cultures ever even existed in the Northeast over 10,000 years ago. During the trip, one of Petersen’s students found the head of a projectile. “This is it, this is why we’re here,” Robinson recalls Petersen saying. “He had a firm belief that history does affect the way people perceive the world around them,” Robinson said.

Talking on his cell phone from the field Monday, Robinson took a look around. Of the six people working, he and three others are former Petersen students.


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