The idea of cannibalism has circulated for centuries in popular culture and certain scientific circles of the developed western world — something horrific that happened in extinct or distant tribal societies where it was an accepted, ritualized practice.
To Stony Brook University anthropologist William Arens, the evidence for the practice there or anywhere, closely examined, appeared shockingly thin, a story about monsters that had become accepted as scientific truth.
Arens, who relatives said died of complications from Parkinson's disease Aug. 6 in his Stony Brook home at age 78, made his argument in "The Man-Eating Myth," a slim 1979 book that won him a degree of fame unusual for a young college professor.
Many historical and academic accounts of cannibalism fell apart under scrutiny because they lacked documentation or relied on accounts from highly partial sources instead of fieldwork or firsthand witnesses, he wrote.
“I am dubious about the actual existence of this act as an accepted practice for any time or place,” Arens wrote. In a 1979 article, he wrote: “I could not be so forthright on this matter if I had ever encountered in person or in print a single anthropologist who had personally witnessed the act.”
Too often, he wrote, colleagues had accepted stories about cannibalism as true without exploring how those stories were used as cultural markers, separating the supposedly civilized from supposedly savage. Where empiricism was needed, the discipline of anthropology substituted uncritical support of "thinly disguised prejudices of western culture," he wrote in "The Man-Eating Myth."
Controversy ensued. In the New York Review of Books, fellow anthropologist Marshall Sahlins countered Arens’ argument with a litany of accounts from the journals of naval men and explorers chronicling people eating human flesh.
Much was at stake, Sahlins warned, because books like Arens’ that won their authors notoriety outside the academy “threatened the usual standards of scholarly value."
Sahlins was right at least about Arens' public profile. The publication of his book led to newspaper profiles and op-eds, a paperback reprinting of the book, and even — according to a Stony Brook University news release — an invitation from the BBC to make a movie based on the book.
In an interview, Lawrence Martin, a Stony Brook anthropologist and director of the university’s Turkana Basin Institute, said his longtime colleague’s book “transformed people’s thinking about the way you describe people’s behavior and what level of evidence you need before making what would be fairly outrageous claims.” The claim of cannibalism, he continued, “was always made about people living traditional lifestyles, not white people living in cities.”
Discoveries in Europe and the American Southwest in recent decades of ancient human bones appearing to bear blade marks would seem to complicate Arens' argument. But it is difficult, Martin said, to determine whether those marks are evidence of mortuary practice or butchery.
William Edward Arens — "Bill" to friends — was born Aug. 31, 1940, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to Nicolaus Arens and the former Sarah Woods. He graduated from Long Island University with a bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology in 1963. Arens did his master’s work in anthropology at the University of New Mexico in 1965 and earned his doctorate in the subject in 1970 at the University of Virginia.
In 1963, he married the former Diane Antos, who survives him, along with a son, Geoffrey Arens of Manhattan. She is co-founder and executive director of Options for Community Living, a not-for-profit organization for people recovering from mental illness and those living with HIV/AIDS.
The fieldwork Arens did for his thesis in Tanzania grew into his first book, "On the Frontier of Change, Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania," in 1979. He returned to the African country as a Fulbright senior scholar and a United Nations consultant.
His third book, "The Original Sin: Incest and Its Meaning," was published in 1986.
Arens joined Stony Brook University in 1970 and remained on the faculty until 2016, chairing the Anthropology Department for more than a decade starting in the late 1980s. He also headed Stony Brook's first residential college, Langmuir, and served as the associate dean of the university's graduate school as well as the university's first vice provost for global affairs.
He transformed an anthropology department emerging from receivership, Martin said, one whose professors who had made pedagogically and legally problematic assignments like breaking into local cemeteries at night to write about the experience, and grown bar tabs so huge at a university club that they forced its closure.
“He imposed order on what was previously chaotic,” Martin said.
Arens reshaped the department, Martin said, by hiring biological anthropologists studying primates and the fossil record to join the cultural anthropologists who already taught there. The number of anthropology majors tripled, Martin said, and study-abroad opportunities expanded from a handful to dozens.
“Those are real legacies,” Martin said.
Arens' family remembered him with a private ceremony held at home, said his son.