Ben Finney

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Ben Finney
Born(1933-10-01)October 1, 1933
San Diego, California
Died(2017-05-23)May 23, 2017
Honolulu, Hawaii
OccupationScientist, teacher, writer

Ben Rudolph Finney was an American anthropologist known for his expertise in the history and the social and cultural anthropology of surfing, Polynesian navigation, and canoe sailing, as well as in the cultural and social anthropology of human space colonization. As “surfing’s premier historian and leading expert on Hawaiian surfing going back to the 17th century”[1] and “the intellectual mentor, driving force, and international public face” of the Hokulea project,[2] he played a key role in the Hawaiian Renaissance following his construction of the Hokulea precursor Nalehia [3] in the 1960s and his co-founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society[4] in the 1970s.


The son of a United States Navy pilot, Ben Finney was born in 1933 [5] and grew up in San Diego, California.[6] He earned his B.A. in history, economics, and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1955. In 1958, after serving in the U.S. Navy and working in the steel and aerospace industries, he went to Hawaii, where he earned his M.A. in anthropology at the University of Hawaii in 1959. His master's degree thesis, “Hawaiian Surfing: a Study of Cultural Change”,[7] became the basis for Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, a book that Finney co-authored with James D. Houston in 1966.[8] Finney earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard University in 1964.

Finney held faculty appointments at the University of California, Santa Barbara,[9] the Australian National University, the University of French Polynesia,[10] and the International Space University.[11] From 1970 through 2000 he was a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his courses included Human Adaptation to the Sea and Human Adaptation to Living in Space. From 1994 through 2003 he was the co-chair of the department of Space and Society at the International Space University.[11]

In the 1990s, Finney was a National Research Council Associate with the SETI project [12] at NASA Ames Research Center and involved in the Sandia National Laboratories planning and implementation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for the disposal of nuclear waste.[13][14] He was on the panel of experts for the 1998 PBS program Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey.[15] During 2004-2006 he was a curator of the Vaka Moana canoe voyaging exhibit at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.[16] He was the featured guest speaker at the 2007 National Conference for Educational Robotics.[17]

He later served as a professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa,[18] and also as a distinguished research associate of the Bishop Museum.[19] He and his wife, Mila, lived most of the year in Hawaii. Finney died on May 23, 2017, at the age of 83.[20]

Polynesian voyaging[edit]

Finney vividly remembers his advisor handing him a copy of Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific [published by the Polynesian Society in 1956], a book by New Zealander Andrew Sharp that suggested that Polynesian canoes were no good, that Polynesian navigation was lousy, and that the Pacific had been settled randomly, and accidentally. Finney, in Hawai‘i to do a master’s of anthropology on surfing, took umbrage—inside. “I was already in trouble doing a master’s thesis on surfing, which was considered renegade and lower-class then,” he explains. It was no time to hatch what professors might have considered wacky schemes, but silently Finney thought: Why not recreate a sailing canoe and prove Sharp wrong?

— Julia Steele, ‘Among the Stars’ article, Hana Hou! [21]        

When Ben Finney was a University of Hawaii graduate student in 1958,[21] working toward his Master of Arts degree and writing his dissertation on surfing, scholars were not yet in agreement that any canoe voyages over great distances on the Pacific Ocean had been intentional.[22] The prevailing view was exemplified by a New Zealand historian with a low opinion of Polynesian navigation methods and canoes, Andrew Sharp, who believed that such voyages could only have been accidental.[23]

Finney did not agree with this view and became determined to disprove it.[21] He built the first 40-feet-long replica of a Polynesian sailing canoe while he was teaching at University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1960s. When it was finished, he shipped it to Hawaii, where ancient Hawaii scholar Mary Kawena Pukui named it Nalehia, which in the Hawaiian language means The Skilled Ones,[21] because of the grace with which its twin hulls rode the sea.

In 1973, Finney co-founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society with artist Herb Kawainui Kane and sailor Charles Tommy Holmes. Within three years, they had designed, built, and sailed the Hōkūleʻa on its first historic voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti [22][24] with a crew led by captain Kawika Kapahulehua and navigator Mau Piailug.


The awards [25] that were bestowed upon Finney include:


(These are incomplete listings.)

Selected books[edit]

  • 1966: Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings. With James D. Houston.[8] Tokyo and Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company. ISBN 0-8048-0557-1.
  • 1976: Pacific Navigation and Voyaging. Auckland, New Zealand: The Polynesian Society. ISBN 0-8248-0584-4.
  • 1979: Hokulea: The Way to Tahiti. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. ISBN 0-396-07719-6.
  • 1985: Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience.[26] Ben R. Finney and Eric M. Jones,[27] eds. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05898-4.
  • 1992: From Sea to Space (The Macmillan Brown Lectures 1989). Palmerston North: Massey University. Distributed by the University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-908665-59-8.
  • 1994: Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey through Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08002-5.
  • 2003: Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging.[2] Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press. ISBN 1-58178-025-7.

Selected articles[edit]

  • 1977: "Voyaging Canoes and the Settlement of Polynesia", Science, Vol. 196, No. 4296:1277-1285.
  • 1981: "Exploring and Settling Pacific Ocean Space—Past Analogues for Future Events?"[28] Space Manufacturing 4: Proceedings of the Fifth Princeton/AIAA Conference May 18–21, 1981 (p. 261). New York: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
  • 1988: "Voyaging Against the Direction of the Trades: A Report of a Canoe Voyage from Samoa to Tahiti". American Anthropologist, Vol. 90, No. 2:401-405.
  • 1991: "Myth, Experiment, and the Reinvention of Polynesian Voyaging."[29] American Anthropologist, Vol. 93, No. 2, June 1991, pp. 383–404.
  • 1994: "The Other One-Third of the Globe".[30] Journal of World History, Vol. 5, No. 2.
  • 1994: "Polynesian Voyagers to the New World". Man and Culture in Oceania, Vol. 10:1-13.
  • 1995: "A role for Magnetoreception in Human Navigation".[31] Current Anthropology, Vol. 36, No. 3:500-506.
  • 2001: "Voyage to Polynesia's Land's End". Antiquity, Vol. 75:172-181.
  • 2007: "Tracking Polynesian Seafarers". Science, Vol. 317:1873-1874.

Selected chapters in other books[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

A character in Launch Out, a Philip Robert Harris science fiction novel that is set in the year 2010, is based on Finney, a University of Hawaii professor of anthropology who is also the president of the fictional Unispace Academy.[34]


  1. ^ Glenn Hening (April 14, 2004). "Riding Waves Two Thousand Years Ago" (PDF). Groundswell Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 16, 2007.
  2. ^ a b Atholl Anderson (March 2006). "Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging (Book review)". Asian Perspectives. 45 (1). doi:10.1353/asi.2006.0001.
  3. ^ Gary T. Kubota (July 7, 2006). "Building a Dream". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Full article (PDF) with photographs and diagrams.
  4. ^ Brief History Archived May 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine of the Polynesian Voyaging Society on the PVS website.
  5. ^ Locher, F. R. (June 1974). Contemporary Authors: A Bibliographical Guide to Current Writers in Fiction, General Non-Fiction, Poetry, Journalism, Drama, Motion Pictures, Televi. ISBN 9780810300200.
  6. ^ Edward Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over the Edge (pp. 230-233, Chapter 7: “Hints for the Better Operation of the Universe”). Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1990. ISBN 0-201-56751-2.
  7. ^ Cited in Geoffrey M White and Ty Kawika Tengan, "Disappearing Worlds: Anthropology and Cultural Studies in Hawai'i and the Pacific" (Project MUSE). The Contemporary Pacific. v.13, n.2 (2001) 381-416.
  8. ^ a b Rick Kleffel (April 2007). "Intimate Dance". Metro Silicon Valley. Interview with James D. Houston
  9. ^ Ferrie, Helke (December 1997). "An Interview with C. Loring Brace". Current Anthropology. 38 (5): 851–869. doi:10.1086/204674. JSTOR 204674. S2CID 143632772.
  10. ^ "Ben Finney Lecture: The Way to Tahiti — Ke Ala i Kahiki". Auckland War Memorial Museum. December 14, 2006. Archived from the original on November 28, 2007. Public Programmes for the Vaka Moana Exhibition
  11. ^ a b International Space University. ISU Space and Society Department. ISU Faculty.
  12. ^ Douglas Vakoch (January 27, 2005). "Universal Translator Might be Needed to Understand ET". SETI Institute. Archived from the original on November 8, 2007.
  13. ^ Jon Lomberg, Design Director for NASA's Voyager Golden Record (2007). "A Portrait of Humanity". Jon Lomberg website. Archived from the original on 2008-09-07.
  14. ^ Sandia National Laboratories. "Excerpts". Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant report SAND92-1382 / UC-721, p. F-49.
  15. ^ Public Broadcasting Service (1998). "Ask The Experts". Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey.
  16. ^ Auckland Museum, Vaka Moana: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Exploration (December 8, 2006 – April 8, 2007).
  17. ^ "July 2007 National Conference on Educational Robotics". KISS Institute for Practical Robotics] Botball website. Archived from the original on 2007-11-15.
  18. ^ "Ben Finney, Professor Emeritus". University of Hawaii at Manoa faculty page. Archived from the original on 2008-01-09.
  19. ^ Bishop Museum Press. "Authors: Ben Finney". Archived from the original on 2009-02-01.
  20. ^ "Polynesian Voyaging Society co-founder Ben Finney dies at 83". 24 May 2017.
  21. ^ a b c d Julia Steele (photographs by Monte Costa). "Among the Stars". Hana Hou! Vol. 10, No. 4, Sept/Oct 2007.
  22. ^ a b Douglas Martin (June 3, 2007). "Kawika Kapahulehua; famed captain sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on February 2, 2013.
  23. ^ Public Broadcasting Service (1998). "Heyerdahl and Sharp". Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey.
  24. ^ Suzanne Roig (March 5, 2006). "Hokule'a's voyage to Tahiti a journey in time". The Honolulu Advertiser. Article includes February 8, 1976 photograph (Ben Finney, 2nd from right) from the newspaper's library.
  25. ^ University of Hawaii at Manoa Center for Pacific Islands Studies. "Staff and Faculty Activities". Pacific News from Mānoa, No. 3, July–September 1997. Archived from the original on 2007-08-09.
  26. ^ Ben R. Finney and Eric M. Jones, “The Exploring Animal” (from p. 15) in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience. “We homo sapiens are by nature wanderers, the inheritors of an exploring and colonizing bent that is deeply embedded in our evolutionary past… What makes us different from other expansionary species is our ability to adapt to new habitats through technology: We invent tools and devices that enable us to spread into areas for which we are not biologically adapted ... However, it is not simply the technological ability to build spaceships, life support systems, and the like that will drive the expansion into space. Whereas technology gives us the capacity to leave Earth, it is the explorer's bent, embedded deep in our biocultural nature, that is leading us to the stars.”
  27. ^ Eric M. Jones. "Who is Eric Jones?". Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.
  28. ^ Grey, Jerry; Ham Dan, Lawrence A. "Table of Contents". Space Manufacturing 4: Proceedings of the Fifth Princeton/AIAA Conference, May 18–21, 1981. Space Studies Institute.
  29. ^ Finney, Ben (1991). "Myth, Experiment, and the Reinvention of Polynesian Voyaging". American Anthropologist. 93 (2): 383–404. doi:10.1525/aa.1991.93.2.02a00060. JSTOR 681301.
  30. ^ Ben Finney (1994). "The Other One-Third of the Globe" (PDF). Journal of World History. 5 (2). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-07-12. Retrieved 2008-01-01.
  31. ^ Finney, Ben (1995). "A Role for Magnetoreception in Human Navigation?". Current Anthropology. 36 (3): 500–506. doi:10.1086/204386. JSTOR 2744059. S2CID 145748805.
  32. ^ Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific. Companion book for the Exhibition Vaka Moana: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Exploration at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, December 8, 2006 – April 8, 2007.
  33. ^ John Hattendorf, editor in chief. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-19-513075-8.
  34. ^ Univelt book review of Philip R. Harris, Launch Out. Haverford: Infinity Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7414-1487-2. ASIN 0741414872. (Page 372: “Dr. Ben Finney still maintained an office at the University of Hawaii. The distinguished anthropologist and author of From Sea to Space had been an ideal selection for the Unispace presidential post.”)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]