Obituary of Andrew (Pete) Vayda

January 15, 2022

Andrew P. "Pete" Vayda, a leading scholar in human ecology and ecological anthropology, died peacefully on January 15 in his New York City home of heart failure. A self-described "inquirer," Vayda was a distinguished professor; interdisciplinary researcher; and passionate foodie, traveler and lover of life. He will be remembered for his wit; irreverence; zest for intellectual engagement; fascination with "why questions;" unfiltered opinions; role as beloved father and grandfather; raunchy humor; and fierceness on the squash court.

For over sixty years starting in 1956, Vayda conducted research in New Zealand, the Cook Islands, New Guinea and Indonesia. He was Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Ecology at Rutgers University (1972-2002), where he founded the Department of Human Ecology; tenured Professor at Columbia University (1960-1972); and Lecturer at the University of British Columbia (1958-1960). He taught courses at numerous other European, American, Australian and Indonesian universities. From his Rutgers retirement until his death, Vayda was an independent scholar; an adjunct professor at Monash University (Australia) and the University of Indonesia; and Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Vayda's career encompassed historical, anthropological, ecological and philosophical research, initially from the perspective of a sub-discipline of anthropology known as ecological
anthropology, which he reshaped as a more interdisciplinary human ecology. He developed and popularized a question-based approach to inquiry that makes causal explanation of events, including human action, the goal; attention to evidence and the details of human behavior are paramount considerations. The methodology was first articulated in 1983 as "Progressive Contextualization," and subsequently refined (with former student and frequent collaborator Bradley Walters) as "Event Ecology" and "Abductive Causal Eventism" (ACE). Vayda was also known for his criticisms of the work of others for failures of causal reasoning and explanation, and for generalizing and theorizing in the absence of adequate evidence. His published works include some hundred articles, three books and four co-edited books. Vayda founded and was editor of the journal Human Ecology, and remained on its board until his death.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Vayda came to the U.S. with his mother when he was 7. He attended New York City public schools and completed his BA and PhD in Anthropology at Columbia University. Vayda's doctoral dissertation described Maori warfare and how it related to environmental, economic, and demographic factors before being greatly altered by European weapons and ways. The resulting book, Maori Warfare (1960), has been regarded as an authoritative work on the subject. Upon completing his PhD, Vayda conducted fieldwork on three coral atolls of Polynesia's Cook Islands (1956-57). After returning to Columbia as a faculty member in 1960, Vayda conducted extensive field work in Papua New Guinea, including a comprehensive survey of the Maring people. He wrote articles interrelating war, economics, and ecology, and edited two anthologies.

Early in his career, Vayda, like his contemporaries, looked for the "big ideas" that would explain cultural similarities and differences in the non-Western societies studied. By the early 1970s, he became disillusioned with this "neo-functionalist" thinking, which then pervaded the Columbia anthropology department. Vayda left Columbia in 1972 for a position at Rutgers University, with a mandate to integrate the social sciences and humanities with the biological and agricultural programs of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. In 1975, he co-authored with his former graduate student and new Rutgers colleague, Bonnie McCay, the influential article, "New Directions in Ecology and Ecological Anthropology," a critique of the neo-functionalist ecological anthropology that he had previously advocated. His book, Warfare in Ecological Perspective, was published in 1976.

While at Rutgers, Vayda initiated a program of multi-sited, multidisciplinary research on peoples' interactions with tropical forests in Indonesia, engaging graduate students and colleagues from Indonesia as well as the US. Over the next 30 years, he worked in association with UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere program, the University of Indonesia, World Wide Fund for Nature, CIFOR, the Ford Foundation, and others on topics including the causes and consequences of deforestation, forest and peat fires, local forest use, and integrated pest management.

A festschrift in Vayda's honor, Against the Grain: The Vayda Tradition in Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology, was published in 2008. Explaining Human Actions and Environmental Changes, a selection of his essays on explanation and explanation-oriented research in the social sciences and human ecology, was published in 2009, and Causal Explanation for Social Scientists: A Reader, co-edited by him and Walters, came out in 2011. In December 2021, Human Ecology published a tribute to Vayda in celebration of his 90th birthday and the journal's 50th anniversary. His most recent research was on the causes of peat fires in Indonesia; he was co-author of the article "Why estimates of the peat burned in fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan are unreliable and why it matters," which was published in January, 2022.

Vayda was married to Cherry Lowman (1962-1976) and Indah Setyawati (1992-1997). He became extremely close with his daughter Andi Vayda, granddaughters Daniela and Maya Velasquez, and son-in-law Juan Carlos Velasquez. Together they embarked on many memorable trips around the globe. While Vayda was surprised to have become such a family man, it was a role he cherished, and one he executed with generosity and love.

To share memories and photos about APV, and/or to be informed about developments like the Zoom session we will hold to remember him together, please email:

No Flowers Please

Share a Memory

The Obituaries are currently being upgraded. Please contact us to report any issues.