Ben Finney, Anthropologist Who Debunked Theory on Island Settlement, Dies at 83

In an account for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Mr. Finney wrote, tersely, “The voyage went as planned.”

Professor Finney died on May 23 in Honolulu. He was 83. His son Sean said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Ben Rudolph Finney was born on Oct. 1, 1933, in San Diego, where his father, Leon, a Navy pilot, had recently been transferred from Hawaii. His mother, the former Melba Trefzger, was a homemaker.

The family relocated to Rio de Janeiro when Leon Finney was assigned to be the pilot for the Navy’s attaché in Brazil during World War II, but Ben grew up mostly in San Diego.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history, economics and anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955, he worked as a statistician at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, Calif., and a manufacturing analyst in the Convair division of General Dynamics in San Diego. A year of active duty in the Navy followed.

He enrolled in the University of Hawaii and earned a master’s degree in anthropology in 1959. His master’s thesis, on surfing and Polynesian culture, evolved into a book, “Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings” (1966), written with James D. Houston. An updated edition was published in 1996 with the title “Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport.”


Ben Finney in 2012.

Honolulu Star Advertiser

In 1964, the year he received his doctorate in anthropology from Harvard, he married Ruth Sutherlin. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son Sean, he is survived by his wife, the former Liudmila Alepko; another son, Gregory; a stepdaughter, Anna Alepko; two grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.

After teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Australian National University, Professor Finney joined the anthropology department at the University of Hawaii in 1970….

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