Keith F. Otterbein

Published October 22, 2015

A memorial service will be held Nov. 13 for longtime anthropology department faculty member Keith F. Otterbein, who died June 17 in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 79.

The service will take place at 4:30 p.m. in 250 Millard Fillmore Academic Complex — the Anthropology Museum Totem Pole Room in the Ellicott Complex on the North Campus. A reception will follow.

Born May 24, 1936, in Warren, Pennsylvania, Otterbein was the elder son of a physician. His enjoyment of hunting on his parents’ farm and fascination as a child with Native American warfare influenced his interest in the evolution of war throughout his career.

He studied archaeology as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University and cultural anthropology while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, where George Peter Murdock supervised his doctoral research on social organization of the Andros Islanders in the Bahamas.

After a brief research job in Washington, D.C., Otterbein took a faculty position at the University of Kansas in 1964 and the following year traveled to northeastern Nigeria to study tribal warfare.

While attending the Institute of Cross-Cultural Research in Pittsburgh in 1964, he met Charlotte Swanson, a psychology graduate student at Cornell. The two married in 1965, becoming, in Otterbein’s words, “lifelong companions and collaborators.”

The Otterbeins returned to the Bahama Islands four times from 1968-87, and co-authored articles on household types, changing house styles, impacts of migratory wage labor, and children and their caretakers. In 2010, they donated their research materials and interview transcripts from the Bahamas research to the Avery Center for African American Research at the College of Charleston.

After working at the University of Kansas for two years, Otterbein joined the UB faculty in 1966. Within five years he was promoted to full professor and remained at UB for 40 years, retiring in 2006. Despite health problems after 1986, he insisted on meeting his classes and publishing commitments.

An outstanding lecturer, he blended empirical analysis and ethnography in ways that made anthropology interesting and relevant to undergraduates. His courses included analysis of how warfare, agriculture and political complexity co-evolved; comparative studies of legal systems; cultural variation in homicide, genocide, rape and capital punishment; and the social ecology of house design and household formation.

With Raoul Naroll, Otterbein established a graduate program in cross-cultural (hologeistics) research, supervising 10 doctoral students and advising participants in the joint PhD-JD program with the UB Law School. He also worked with the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University as director, Executive Committee member and chair of the board from 1978-2007.  

He was a prolific writer, with publications on Bahamian ethnography (1966, 1975) and capital punishment (1986). His books on warfare include “The Evolution of War” (1970, 1985, 1989), “Feuding and Warfare” (2004), “How War Began” (2004) and “The Anthropology of War” (2009). His introductory text “Comparative Cultural Analysis” (1972, 1977) provided models for learning anthropological principles through cultural comparisons.  

Otterbein was a remarkable scholar, dedicated to the science of anthropology and to his family and students. His colleagues will miss his gentle humor, love of old houses and antiques, and tireless capacity for good conversation.

—    Ann McElroy