Obituary: Peter Gow, world-renowned anthropologist and Amazonianist

Peter George Gow, Professor of Anthropology and Amazonianist. Born: 19 June, 1958 in Edinburgh. Died: l8 May, 2021 in Dundee, aged 62

Peter George Gow spent time living with the indigenous Peruvian Amazonian Piro people
Peter George Gow spent time living with the indigenous Peruvian Amazonian Piro people

Like many boys growing up in the 1960s Peter Gow enjoyed the regular diet of Westerns that filled the era’s television and cinema screens. And from very early on he identified and empathised with the Native American Indians.

As a youngster he was fascinated by their culture, insisting on using the correct terminology for their tent dwellings – teepee not wigwam – and pored over editions of National Geographic magazine.

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In primary three his schoolbook, Looking at Other Children, featured the story of Peko of the Amazon Forest, a tale that was also to fuel his imagination. Years later he would realise his dream to experience the South American forest environment, living with the indigenous Peruvian Amazonian Piro people.

That early intrigue in the American Indians and his enthusiasm for nature and geography led the captivated schoolboy into a distinguished career as a world-renowned anthropologist and Amazonianist, passions that dominated his life.

The son of banker James Gow and his wife Helen, he was educated at the Scottish capital’s George Heriot’s School and spent a great deal of time in the children’s library on George IV bridge, learning as much as he could about nature, geography and other cultures, then creating his own imaginary world in his back garden.

Growing up, he was able to research the North American Indians and grasped the published accounts of their language, his latent anthropology underpinned by a desire to communicate with them in their own tongue. And in his teens he began to collect books about the native peoples of North and South America, a personal library that would ultimately include a large collection on Amazonian peoples.

He had a flair for languages and an almost photographic memory and went up to Trinity College Cambridge at 18 to study social anthropology. In 1980 he went to Peruvian Amazonia to undertake fieldwork for his doctoral research, living in a village on the Bajo Urubamba river with Piro families. He wanted to study how the indigenous people, who had extensive contacts with such “alien dominators” as bosses in the tropical hardwood industry, survived in those circumstances.

“I was young and left wing,” he wrote. “I was a Marxist and concerned with consciousness-raising.”

As a result he was not backward in coming forward with his views on subjects such as the inadequacies of the laws surrounding the titling of indigenous peoples’ lands and the shortcomings of the local educational system. He felt this was his duty towards the common history that linked him with the Piro people but he was put firmly in place by the locals.

Self-deprecatingly he admitted: “My attempts at radical political engagement were brought to an abrupt halt when an important Piro leader told me quietly but sternly ‘We are happy for you to live here among us, learning how we live. That’s fine. But we don’t want you to tell us what we should do.’”

He kept his views there to himself after that but retained an ability to engage equally with any in his company, building deeply-valued relationships with people from all walks of life – his students, colleagues, strangers who crossed his path.

After completing his PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE) he taught at the universities of East Anglia and Manchester and the LSE before returning to Scotland where, in 2003, he was appointed a professor in St Andrews University’s anthropology department.

In addition to writing two ground-breaking books – Of Mixed Blood: Kinship and History in Western Amazonia (1991) and An Amazonian Myth and its History (2001) – and numerous dozen articles and book chapters, he was a popular speaker and delivered lectures and conference papers on both sides of the Atlantic. He also published in Portuguese and in Spanish, leaving a legacy that stretches far beyond the UK.

Throughout his career he had close ties with colleagues and friends in South America, particularly in Brazil where, in the mid-1990s, he taught as a visiting professor at the graduate school of the Museu Nacional of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. It was here that he wrote his Amazonian Myth volume.

Happy to be back home in Scotland, he became a core member of St Andrews’ Centre for American Studies and made occasional return visits to South America. Prof Gow, who retired in 2017, lived in Dundee for much of the last two decades and although suffering ill health for the past year – he had cancer of the oesophagus – was still avidly reading and dreaming of more travels, this time to India, a desire prompted by his re-reading of The Raj Quartet series.

Hugely admired for his intellect, élan and humour, his untimely death sparked an outpouring of tributes from friends, colleagues and students he inspired to study anthropology. As one poignantly put it: “We are all feeling like orphans.”

He is survived by his brothers Ian and David, sister Vivien and his nieces and nephews.

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