August 31, 1940–August 6, 2019
Cultural anthropologist, authority on cannibalism, Fulbright senior scholar, United Nations consultant, and Stony Brook University professor William “Bill” Arens, passed away on August 6, 2019, after suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease.
Arens joined Stony Brook University in 1970 in the Department of Anthropology, where he remained a faculty member until his retirement in 2016, when he became dean emeritus. In the late 1980s, he became chair of the department, a position he held for more than a decade. During his tenure, Arens recruited several esteemed faculty members who went on to become acclaimed scholars, including Patricia Wright, John Shea, and Curtis Marean.
Over the years, Arens served in many administrative positions, including as head of Stony Brook University’s first residential college, Langmuir. He later became associate dean of the Graduate School, ultimately taking responsibility for International Academic Programs (IAP), which, at the time, reported to the Graduate School. IAP later became a separate unit, and Arens became Stony Brook’s first vice provost for global affairs.
Outside of the university, Arens achieved celebrity as an authority on cannibalism. His originality in this field lay in his questioning the reliability of virtually all the countless reports of its occurrence as a regular, accepted social practice, from the time of the so-called Peking Man to the present. Arens’s analysis appeared in his widely published book, The Man-Eating Myth, and generated tremendous interest both within and outside cultural anthropological circles—he was invited by the BBC to make a film based on his book. His work made the identification of cannibalism in the archaeological record a much more exacting task.
Throughout his career, Arens had a long and varied relationship with the country of Tanzania, in particular, the town of Mto wa Mbu. He conducted field research there for his PhD from the University of Virginia, which later resulted in his book, On the Frontier of Change, Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania. In the 1980s, Arens returned as both a Fulbright senior scholar and UN consultant. Starting in 1998, he embarked on a 15-year effort to introduce students to the language and culture of Tanzania via a popular study abroad program.
William Arens is survived by his wife, Diane Antos Arens; his son, Geoff Arens and daughter-in-law, Trish Peifer-Arens; his grandson, Bayley; and his granddaughter, Sophie. (Joan Behan-Duncan, Stony Brook University)