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UC Berkeley Press Release

John Rowe, authority on Peruvian archaeology, dies at 85

– John Howland Rowe, a University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus of anthropology and an authority on Peruvian archaeology, died Saturday, May 1, in a Berkeley nursing home due to complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 85.

The classically trained Rowe, who once said he had wanted to be an archaeologist since the age of 3, used an interdisciplinary approach - borrowing from the fields of archaeology, history, ethnography, art, linguistics and intellectual history - in his empirical investigations of the Peruvian Andes and his development of new archaeological theory.

 John Rowe in 1948
John Rowe, photographed in 1948 with Guambiano Indians in southern Colombia. (George Foster photo)

He worked with his students to construct a detailed archaeological sequence for most of the Peruvian highlands and coast. At a time when getting dates in years was virtually impossible, his work specified time periods there as narrowly as 25 to 50 years, with a relative chronology that remains the most widely used in Andean studies.

His paper, "Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest," remains the classic reference work on the subject.

"People were saying the Incas disappeared when the Spanish arrived," Rowe said in a UC Berkeley Anthropology Emeritus Lecture in 1998. "That's ridiculous. Of course they didn't disappear. I turned to Inca art to prove this. It was something concrete."

Rowe also did pioneering work in southern Peru with the Early Horizon Paracas culture, and with the later Nazca culture. He synthesized what was then known about the very different course of urban civilizations in Peru.

Rowe published a paper in 1950, "Sound Patterns in Three Inca Dialects," one of the earliest publications on the speech characteristics of the people in the Andean area, and one which laid the groundwork for later efforts by other researchers. His 1953 paper, "Eleven Inca Prayers from the Zithuwa Ritual," is considered a tour de force in which he reconstructed the most probable original version of these prayers from textual comparison of the copies.

"Paradoxically, because he was trained in the classics, he was intellectually modern," said Eugene Hammel, professor emeritus of anthropology and demography at UC Berkeley. "His was the first seminar in the history of anthropological theory that put the development of anthropology in its social context. In that sense, he was a postmodernist before the modernists even showed up."

"John Rowe opened up and reoriented our vision of the Inca Empire, such that he remains and will remain the main place of referral in all questions about that important and influential empire," said Christine Hastorf, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley and an archaeologist specializing in highland Andean societies.

Former Rowe student Karen Olsen Bruhns, an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University, called Rowe "probably one of the greatest scholars of the Inca civilization who ever lived."

Bruhns recalled that when working with his students, Rowe "tried to emphasize to all of us rigor with data, rigor with interpretation, and to be honest and decent scholars." Another former student, Paul Amaroli, field director for the Fundación Nacional de Arqueologia de El Salvador in San Salvador, described Rowe as "brilliant and inspiring, never pretentious ...a different class of human being."

"John Rowe was a culture historian of the highest order. When he died, so too died a wealth of knowledge about the history of the department of anthropology at UC Berkeley. His courses on culture growth and Andean civilization were masterpieces of methodological precision and anthropological knowledge," said Stanley Brandes, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor.

Catherine Julien, an anthropologist in the history department at the Western Michigan University, said she worked as a graduate student with Rowe in 1973 and 1974 at pre-Inca archaeological sites in Cuzco.

"He would show us how he troweled and tell us why," she said. "By the end of the day, every one of us was doing it that way, not because there weren't other ways to do it or because he had told us to do it that way, but because it was just the best, most comfortable way to work. Teaching was about talking sense without using authority."

In her interdisciplinary course on the Andes, Julien is using what she calls "The Rowe Reader," a selection of his articles covering 1200 B.C. to the late 18th century.

"He unified the Andean past in his own work, and I can use it to teach a course that vaults the traditional barrier between archaeology and history," she said. "His work on the visual arts in the Spanish colonial era was prescient, and it complements his art-historical approach to the pre-Hispanic period."

Rowe started UC Berkeley's anthropology department library, the second oldest and largest anthropology library in the United States, serving as department chair from 1963-1967. He also helped found the Kroeber Anthropological Society, a UC Berkeley student-run professional society composed of anthropology graduate students.

"He had the foresight that an anthropology library was essential for developing and maintaining a top-ranked program in anthropology at UC Berkeley, and he was successful in establishing one here. Several generations of scholars have benefited from his vision," said Suzanne Calpestri, the John H. Rowe Librarian at UC Berkeley's George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library.

Rowe co-founded the Institute of Andean Studies in Berkeley, and served as its president until earlier this year. The institute, which held its 44th annual meeting in January, is the oldest scholarly Andean society in the United States and draws Andean scholars in a wide range of fields. The nonprofit institute publishes a scholarly journal, Ñawpa Pacha.

Jean-Pierre Protzen, a UC Berkeley professor of archaeology, is the institute's current president. He said Rowe encouraged him to successfully test theories Protzen had about how to replicate Incan construction techniques using huge stones for buildings without the aid of modern tools. "I never would have done it without him," said Protzen, describing Rowe as a "walking encyclopedia" on Andean culture and language.

Douglas Sharon, director of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley and a Peruvian scholar, noted that Rowe was the emeritus curator of the museum's South American collection. He described Rowe as "the dean of Andean studies" and an "incredibly erudite and learned leader in the field."

Rowe's contributions to scholarship gained worldwide recognition as well as repeated honors from the Peruvian government. In 1947, he was awarded the title of honorary professor at the University of the Cauca, Colombia; in 1954, the honorary degree of doctor of letters at the University of Cuzco and a diploma of honor from the Scientific Society of Cuzco; the Robertson Prize of the American Historical Association in 1957; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958; and the Premio de Honor of the Provincial Council of Ica, Peru, in 1958. In 1968, he received the award of Officer in the Orden del Sol, the highest civilian award of the Peruvian government. In 1969, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Brown University. He also received an honorary professorship from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

Rowe was born in Sorrento, Maine, in 1918. His father was the director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art and his mother was the assistant director at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Rowe attended Brown University, majoring in classical archaeology, where he learned to study texts as well as objects and to look at objects as an art historian does, emphasizing the style. He received his M.A. from Harvard University in 1941 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1947.

He first taught in Cuzco, and in 1946 founded the archaeology section of the University of San Antonio Abad there, initiating the study of archaeology in Peruvian universities. At the same time, he was director of the Museum and Institute of Archaeology, now the Museo Inca. He also taught in the University of Popayan in Colombia from 1947-1948 before joining the faculty of UC Berkeley's anthropology department in 1948. He was promoted to full professor in 1956 and retired in 1988.

Rowe was married to Patricia Lyon, a scholar of Amazonian ethnology, and together they researched Amazonian ethnology and Andean archaeology and history. Besides his wife, Rowe is survived by two daughters from a former marriage to Barbara Burnett: Ann Pollard Rowe, curator of Western Hemisphere textiles at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and Lucy Burnett Rowe, a molecular geneticist at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine; and a sister, Edith Talbot Rowe, of Seattle.

A small family memorial will be held this summer. A public memorial is planned for January 2005, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Institute of Andean Studies.