Denise Pahl Schaan

April 17, 1962–March 3, 2018

Denise Pahl Schaan, 55, a major figure in Amazonian archaeology and professor in the graduate anthropology program at the Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPa), died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) on March 3, 2018, in Belém, Brazil.

Schaan was an extremely productive scholar, whose prolific field research and publications were key in current debates on cultural development and anthropogenic influence on the tropical forests of lowland South America. Her intimate understanding of the material record discerned subtle traces of past human occupations often missed in tropical landscapes. Her early research concentrated on Marajó Island, the scene of considerable debate in Amazon archaeology in earlier generations, including in-depth studies on Marajoara iconography, which was the basis of her MA thesis at the Catholic University in Porto Alegre, her home city, and published in 1997. This culminated in her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh (2004), based on careful excavations and survey on Marajó, which resulted in the most precise reconstruction of the regional organization of these pre-Columbian complex societies and revealed systems of water and fish management overlooked by earlier researchers.

Schaan is best known internationally for her in-depth survey and excavations of the monumental enclosures in southwestern Amazonia, known as geoglyphs. Together with paleoecologist Alceu Ranzi (Universidade Federal do Acre), she mounted an international research team that brought these remarkable earthen constructions to world acclaim and demonstrated the complexity of these forgotten pre-Columbian peoples, in a region long thought to be devoid of indigenous monumentality.

Schaan’s meticulous empirical studies fueled debates on the cultural achievements of ancient Amazonians and her insights were at the vanguard of current theories of their development. Schaan was an innovator in archaeological science, adopting novel technologies to unearth the evidence of prehistoric landscape transformations in Amazonia, and their relevance to debates on biodiversity, sustainability, and cultural heritage.

The archaeology and historical ecology of the geoglyphs, mound sites of Marajó Island, and her recent work on the cultural landscapes of Santarém formed the core material for her comprehensive monograph, Sacred Geographies of Ancient Amazonia (2011). Schaan was a prolific writer and authored over 80 articles and book chapters in scientific and public venues, including PNAS, Journal of Archaeological Science, and Antiquity. She authored, edited, and co-edited 14 volumes. She was an innovative educator and, together with social anthropologist Jane Beltrão, founded the first explicitly four-field PhD program in anthropology in Brazil at the UFPa in 2008, as well as the online anthropology journal Amazônica: Revista de Antropologia.

In addition to her voluminous research, she supervised 5 PhD and 11 MA theses at UFPa, where she was directing 5 PhD theses at the time of her death. She is survived by her husband André dos Santos, daughter Ana Paula, and son Lucas. Although she will be sorely missed, her profound influence on the burgeoning fields of Amazon archaeology and historical ecology will live on through her carefully collected field data, insightful publications, and the unique inspiration she provided to students and colleagues. (William Balée and Michael J. Heckenberger)


Cite as: Balée, William, and Michael J. Heckenberger. 2018. “Denise Pahl Schaan.” Anthropology News website, March 16, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.802

The Graduate Program in Anthropology invites everyone to the 1st SYMPOSIUM OF INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES - INSTITUTE OF STUDIES OF XINGU, to be held on April 16, 17 and 18, 2018, in São Félix do Xingu-PA.

Click here: Event website

Dear colleagues,

It is with deep sadness that we received the news of the death of our companion Denise Pahl Schaan, of the Federal University of Pará. She passed away today, March 03, 2018, as a consequence of a relentless illness that had affected her life for some time. Despite the limitations imposed by her state of health, Denise never ceased to devote herself to her academic commitments. Something that surprised us all, who have followed their challenges in recent months. Denise had an impressive ability to work, which is notorious in the face of her voluminous academic output. She was a tireless researcher, obstinate, disciplined, and always concerned with excellence. In addition to her undeniable scientific contribution to the field of Archeology, especially in the Amazon, Denise was very creative, perhaps an inheritance from her time in the world of arts in Porto Alegre, and that led her to studies on the iconography of Marajoara pottery. In recent years, along with his partner, he has been devoting himself to audiovisual productions, some of which are very well received by critics. This was Denise, taking every opportunity to produce articles, books, magazines, exhibitions, videos. Her entrepreneurial nature led her to create and expand archeology training spaces in the Amazon, including the Postgraduate Program in Anthropology, Federal University of Pará, where she was a founder and teacher, and in which we were colleagues for many years. It was through her that I came to the Amazon, here we worked together on projects, organizing two books and conducting the Brazilian Archeology Society / SAB, between 2007 and 2009, she was president, I was secretary.

Accounting for its production is a task, and it produced an extraordinary volume for those who were just over 50 years old. Denise revolutionized Amazonian archeology, in which she wrote 14 books, more than 40 articles in major scientific journals, some 40 chapters of books, and other academic productions. His publications, which include themes ranging from research to management, combined with his great competence and capacity for synthesis, have made the name Schaan cited in a significant part of the bibliography related to the academic production of Brazilian archeology. The writing was one of his passions, which he worked hard. She once told me that she would like to retire, move to a beach, and become a writer. He had recognized talent both for academic texts and those for the dissemination of archeology. These materials arrived in distant places of Amazonia and for that reason, the name Schaan was heard in several places of the region, especially, that one that made it enter the archeology: the Marajó. I could write pages about her titles, production, creativity, her contribution to our field, the enormous gap that remains with her death, but interestingly, Denise Pahl Schaan never wanted to be an archaeologist, she said,

"I never thought of being an archaeologist and I can say that I became an archaeologist by chance ... I found in archeology what I was looking for: the possibility of developing a work that was intellectual and physical, which demanded creativity and passion that required dedication and responsibility, in which I could give vent to my interests in anthropology, drawing, art, literature, through which I could travel and meet new people, teach and learn. I think if I had chosen earlier for archeology I would not have prepared myself so much to exercise it with the determination with which I dedicate myself to my career nowadays. People who are passionate about their profession and who like what they do know what I'm talking about"¹.

Denise was a shy-smiling woman, but she had this passion in everything she did. Her early death has a strong impact on our community, and particularly on those of us who live with her at university. We have not yet been able to measure her loss, but I know that she has eternalized for her production, so vast for such a young man. Denise Schaan said "the world needs good storytellers" and added "some of them may be archaeologists"2. She was certainly one of the great accountants of the history of the Amazon and this will always make her present.

Marcia Bezerra

Federal University of Pará

Belém, March 3, 2018

1 Schaan, D.P. Reflections of an archaeologist and woman in the Amazon, in Dominguez, Funari, Carvalho, Rodrigues (Orgs) Challenges of Archeology: testimonials. Erechim: Habilis editor, 2009, 89-99.

2 Op.cit, p.99

Photo: Video "35 years of SAB".