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Campus Mourns Petersen; UVM Memorial Set

By Tom Weaver Article published August 24, 2005

As a scholar, Professor James Petersen significantly influenced his field with research in the Amazon that cast new light on conventional wisdom regarding the population and degree of sophistication of ancient cultures in the region. As a teacher, he brought boundless enthusiasm to the classroom and his popular field courses. Working with Petersen, associate professor of anthropology at UVM, inspired many students to further their own study of archeology and anthropology.

On Aug. 14, the UVM community learned of the tragic loss of Petersen. The previous day, while on a research trip with colleagues in Brazil, he was shot and killed during a robbery in Iranduba, a small town near the Amazon River. His family held a memorial service on Aug. 22 at Shelburne Museum. A second memorial service will take place at Ira Allen Chapel at 9 a.m. on Sept. 23.

“The university community is stunned by the tragic death of Jim Petersen, one of our finest professors,” said Provost John Bramley. “Jim was engaged in pioneering work in his study of pre-Columbian cultures and was a gifted and enthralling leader who brought his scholarship alive in the classroom. Our condolences and support go out to Jim’s wife and family at this terrible time.”

President Daniel Mark Fogel said, “As both an alumnus and as a distinguished member of our faculty, Professor James Petersen was a shining example of everything to which we aspire at the University of Vermont. His death is a devastating loss not only to our community, but to the wider circle of anthropological research, a field he dramatically reshaped through his inspired work in the Amazon and elsewhere.”

Petersen, quoted in an article in the Spring 2005 issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine, referred to himself as “a child of UVM.” His parents, James E. Petersen and Ella Chamer Noack, met on the campus and were graduates of the Class of 1949. Petersen received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont in 1979 and joined the faculty at his alma mater in 1997.

Michael Heckenberger, UVM Class of 1988, an anthropology professor at the University of Florida, was among the many students Petersen inspired during his career. He worked with him when Petersen was a visiting professor at UVM, prior to joining the faculty full-time. The two would later collaborate on ground-breaking work in the Amazon that questioned the long-held belief that the Amazon was a “counterfeit paradise” lacking the rich soils and protein sources needed to sustain significant human populations. Through their study of deep layers of terra preta do Indio, Indian dark earth, Heckenberger and Petersen made a strong case that today’s small-scale native settlements are the remnants of once-thriving agricultural communities along the banks of the Amazon.

“To get the story right, that’s my motive,” Petersen told Vermont Quarterly. “I work in the Amazon as part of a broader effort like I do here in North America, in New England, the Caribbean and wherever else I work, to see the correct story told. That we don’t underestimate the degree of sophistication, the degree of elaboration, the degree of complexity of the native people.”

Luis Vivanco, associate professor of anthropology at UVM and director of the university’s Latin American Studies Program, remembered Petersen as a supportive colleague who was generous with his time. Vivanco accompanied Petersen on a field course to the island of Anguilla and was struck by his ability to connect with students as both teacher and friend.

“He had the highest expectations for the students’ work on those trips,” Vivanco said. “He would pay incredibly close attention to what the students were doing in their fieldwork. But at the end of the day, the seriousness was put aside and he could just hang out.”

“Jim is an infectious person and teacher,” colleague and former student Heckenberger recalled in the Vermont Quarterly article. “He attracts so many people to anthropology. He is without a doubt one of the most powerful and influential teachers I had.” For more on Petersen’s work in the Amazon, see Vermont Quarterly online. For coverage of Petersen’s murder, see this Inside Higher Ed article. The Boston Globe's Petersen obituary is available here.

The family and friends of James Petersen have established a scholarship in his memory to support undergraduate students within the College of Arts and Sciences to fulfill their academic dreams. This scholarship will enable Petersen's memory to live in perpetuity through the many students who will benefit from a University of Vermont education. Contributions may be sent to the attention of Natalie J. Fleischman, Senior Development Officer, University of Vermont, 411 Main Street, Grasse Mount, Burlington, VT 05401.