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Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures

4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  891 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
In this brilliant and profound study the distinguished American anthropologist Marvin Harris shows how the endless varieties of cultural behavior -- often so puzzling at first glance -- can be explained as adaptations to particular ecological conditions. His aim is to account for the evolution of cultural forms as Darwin accounted for the evolution of biological forms: to ...more
Hardcover, 239 pages
Published January 1st 1977 by Random House
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Nov 04, 2010 trina rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: EVERYONE
super fucking brilliant, amazing and fascinating in every way imaginable. our anthropologist lays down his facts steadily, and builds to these assertions- theories, i suppose- which when they come are as astounding as they are seemingly self-evident. 'man was free until the formation of the state', for example, totally blew my mind, and yet don't we all kind of suspect that, in the backs of our minds?? the chapters on aztec cannibalism and hindu vegetarianism were probably my favorites, because ...more
"Cannibals and Kings" is a sort of strange book. It tackles a variety of seemingly unrelated topics of popular interest in a sort of seamless flow, all through the lenses of environmentally-centered determinist forces. Harris has an authoritative authorial voice - there is always "no doubt" that the explanation he gives is The Explanation to this human mystery.

Harris is an environmental determinist, which I like, and his arguments often presage those of the later, more famous determinist Jared
Mar 30, 2008 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Cannibals and Kings is an excellent anthropology primer. The jacket notes describe it as a "brilliant and profound study... of how the endless varieties of cultural behavior can be explained as adaptations to particular ecological conditions."

In his introduction to the book author Marvin Harris posits that "reproductive pressure, [resource] intensification, and environmental depletion appear to provide the key for understanding the evolution of family organization, property relations, political
Curtis Harris
Aug 09, 2012 Curtis Harris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read cows, pigs, wars and witches first. I only read this because I respect Marvin Harris so much. Turns out that I got a lot more out of this book. It totally changed the way that I look at civilization.
Mar 23, 2010 Rich rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I want to read anthropologists' responses to this book, or the author's notes. His conclusions are interesting and they all make at least some sense to me but causation is a problem; sometimes, he doesn't explain why the circumstances he describes in each of his case studies lead to his conclusions. I have no idea what to make of life-expectancy numbers from 30,000 BC. He says he does but I don't see how he arrived at the conclusions he has based on the speculative life-expectancies he chose.

Patrick Riedling
Jan 20, 2015 Patrick Riedling rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: antropology
Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures is a fascinating exploration of thought in which Marvin Harris presents rational reasons for the development of warfare, agriculture, religion, migration, government, and politics. Systematically walk through time to witness the seeds of civilization germinate, take root, grow, wither, and become fertile ground for new societies to emerge and follow the same path.

Throughout history, the balance between food resources and human population have dictated ch
Sep 14, 2015 Whitney rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating! I read this as a way to start familiarizing myself with cultural materialism/determinism. His idea is basically that ecological factors are responsible for all the twists and turns in population/quality of life/political and economic systems. The idea that war was a product of over-population, that it is a way of cutting down your own population as well as the enemy's, and that this, in turn, produces patriarchal and misogynistic societies was especially interesting to me.
Nov 05, 2014 Leonardo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Según entiendo, Marvin le hubiera contestado a Lucas:
(haciendo decir a Marvin un poco más de lo que en realidad dijo)

¿Por qué trabajamos mucho?
Por un lado está la cuestión de la distribución, si se distribuyera un poco mejor lo que se produce no sería necesario producir tanto, ni por lo tanto trabajar tanto. Pero también está la cuestión de mantener el nivel poblacional, frente al crecimiento demográfico que surge por si solo por las capacidades naturales, no hay muchas opciones: o maximizar la
Sep 21, 2012 Ann rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Materialist Frameworks: Cultural Ecology and Cultural Materialism
Pigs for the Ancestors by Roy Rappaport 1967, 1984
Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris 1977

Rounding out my recent readings on materialist frameworks within anthropological theory, these two books move past looking at cultural ecology as a type of evolutionism, and explore the concept in more of a deterministic framework. Building on Steward’s efforts to understand the interplay between culture, production processes, and environment
Mar 05, 2017 Giselle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“Many humanists and artists recoil from the proposition that cultural evolution has hitherto been shaped by unconscious impersonal forces. The determined nature of the past fills them with apprehension as to the possibility of an equally determined future. But their fears are misplaced. It is only through an awareness of the determined nature of the past that we can hope to make the future less dependent on unconscious and impersonal forces. In the birth of a science of culture others profess to ...more

General Thoughts and Rating

Excellent cultural determinist view of the evolution of human societies and civilizations, which makes a fine companion read to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." Marvin Harris manages to convincingly show how cycles of reproductive pressure, intensification and resource depletion shaped the world up to how it was in the 1970s, and points out that these factors - with a focus on the race between technology and resource depletion - will most-likely continue to sha
Книжка розрахована на дуже широку аудиторію. Дуже прикро, що безліч цікавих ідей розмиваються непомірним узагальненням і теоретизуванням. Відсутня аргументація більшості неоднозначних висновків, аналіз наявних фактів. Система посилань відсутня як така. Можливо, не варто це було читати зразу ж після академічної роботи Річарда Кляйна. Але, здається, там я теж був не об'єктивний, оскільки закидав автору у надмірній сухості викладу і відсутності узагальнень. Тому буде розумно припустити, що в даному ...more
James Curcio
Jul 20, 2010 James Curcio rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book provides a great deal of compelling anthropological thought; it focuses on a systemic view of the ebbs and flows of culture, and has been quite a mind-fuck for me, as I've been reading it in stops and starts alongside Manuel De Landa's 1000 Years of Nonlinear History. Harris' style is dry but concise, and considering that dryness it is surprising what a quick read this is proving to be. (1000 Years of Nonlinear History, on the other hand, may take me about 1000 years to finish.)

I won'
Archeologist Lewis-Williams said that scientists tend to favour the evidence that is most relevant to their pre-conceived ideas and that these tendencies can call into question the most solid and the most thought through theories. But in this book, Marvin Harris managed to almost entirely avoid such baises.
Unfortunately it was not because he presented objectively valid data, but because he chose to not to rely on any physical evidence to further illustrate his arguments. Statements about early-h
Jul 02, 2007 Ian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Marvin Harris provides a quick survey of world history in this book. He tries to explain human's cultural development from early times and hunter-gatherers all the way to today's contemporary cultural practices. He attempts to show the parallels between today's standard beliefs and practices to an evolutionary history.

Each chapter in this book builds from the theories provided in the ones before it. Some of his more interesting - if not controversial - attempt to show that cannibalism - or "peop
Sep 19, 2013 Devero rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Questo libro, a mio avviso, andrebbe reso un teso obbligatorio per la scuola superiore.
Secondo Harris le diverse civiltà e culture locali si sono sviluppate e caratterizzate a seconda della effettiva disponibilità delle risorse. Quando la domanda della popolazione in aumento era superiore a tale disponibilità, le culture intensificavano la produzione finché le risorse originali si approssimavano a un pericoloso esaurimento. Per sopravvivere era allora necessario agire sulla domanda, anche con me
Jul 27, 2012 Noel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Marvin Harris inspects and interprets the mechanisms of society under the colourful title of Cannibals and Kings. As always he starts out on this quest with seemingly random topics until we find ourselves in a pretty tight spot as human beings. How is it relevant that most cultures abhor cannibalism, yet in all cultures at some point in time it is present? What price did we pay for the current standard of living, and what price are we about to pay? Harris points out that mankind has been on a da ...more
Sep 19, 2013 Sancho rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the second book by Harris that I read, and I definitely like him.

In this book, Harris tries to give answer to a wide variety of questions such as the dominance of man over women, cannibalism and vegetarianism, and food taboos claiming that most of the times these behaviors respond more to environmental than cultural pressures. Periods of starvation, scarcity of protein, reliance on rainfall vs. on irrigation, determine to a great extent what we label today as cultural (including religiou
Hari Balaji
Jul 29, 2014 Hari Balaji rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A tour de force that takes a stab at rationally explaining the evolution of several unrelated aspects of culture. While Harris sounds a bit too sure of himself at times for his sometimes sweeping conclusions to be taken at face value, he does provide the reader with many eureka moments that makes this book an enjoyable read. To get the most out of this book skim first and then read in detail selectively. IMHO:

Best bits: Gender bias & Male supremacy, Female infanticide, Cannibalism, Cultural
May 28, 2013 Kuulee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read! The book provides some compelling arguments regarding the origins of different cultures OR perspectives upon why people with different cultural backgrounds engage in certain activities that some of them (especially religous ceremonies) are even carried out present day. Some arguments the author made are hurtbreaking yet to a large extent, seem no less than plain truth.

Just like there needs to be a strong motivation for an individual to conduct any activity, nearly 2 million ye
Fred R
Oct 16, 2012 Fred R rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
His influence on Jared Diamond is obvious, but there's a lot of stuff in here that was new to me. For instance, I was very surprised to read in Bernal Diaz's "Conquest of Mexico" that in every town they entered, they found hostages in cages being fattened up to be eaten. Harris provides confirmation, as well as a pretty interesting and plausible account of why cannibalism really took off there. His basic framework also provides good explanations of Jewish dietary restrictions and whatever it is ...more
Oct 13, 2016 Phakin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
โนตไวหนอยวาผมชอบประเดนของแฮรริสเปนทุนเดิมอยูแลว และคำอธิบายถึงพัฒนาการของสังคมมนุษยในแงตางๆ กนาคิดตามมาก แตทีประหลาดใจคือ ผมเพิงรูจริงๆ วาแกนับตัวเองเปน cultural determinist ดวย แนนอน แนวคิดของแกถูกจัดอยูในหมวดทีเรียกวา cultural materialism ซึงใหนำหนักมากกับปัจจัยทางวัตถุ (และตองยอมรับวาเขาระแวดระวังกับการใชคำอธิบายในลักษณะนีมาก เหนไดจากการเริมนิยามคำวา determinism ไวตังแตตน ซึงนิยามแบบนีแหละทีพวก cultural determinism ธรรมดามักไมคอยสนใจ เขาใจ หรือมองขาม) เพียงแตผมไมคิดวาแกจะนับตัวเองเปนพวกวัฒนธร ...more
Mar 21, 2013 Catalina rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
After reading some books I feel enriched with a better understanding of human nature, the sources that shaped us and society.
Well Cannibals and Kings is one of the perfect books to help with such a task! It provided tones of information, put in a logic and easy to understand form; confirmed many of my believes, shade light on others and provided better explanations where I lacked them. I still need to read Jared Diamond's and Thomas Sowell's versions, of which a heard only good stuff.

I find it
Dec 08, 2012 VAle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Non riesco mai ad essere d'accordo del tutto con Marvin Harris, ma forse è proprio per questo che mi piace.
Teorie (più o meno condivise) a parte, il tono sentenzioso che lo contraddistingue può dare fastidio a molti, come anche dimenticare, fosse solo per qualche pagina, che il libro è stato scritto nel 1977, in piena Guerra Fredda e che lui è stato uno degli antropologi più controversi.
Superate queste prime difficoltà ci si può addentrare in uno dei testi fondamentali del materialismo culturale
Apr 19, 2010 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
Harris presents an ambitious and compelling thesis regarding the causes of and unconscious motivations behind the development of human societies ancient & modern.
He focuses on the cycle of depletion of resources, intensification, and decline as the most consistent story of humankind since the advent of agriculture. He argues that intensification is a natural reaction to a list of deplorable choices when societies are faced with threats to their way of life, but that intensification is always
Apr 04, 2014 Marco rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good to eat was the first anthropology book I've read. I thought it was very clever and enlightening. Later then I got to read the books of J. Diamond, D. Acemoglu, D.Headrick etc. and I understand that theories are important, but that it is more important that as much as evidence as possible have to be presented and that research should be very extended not only in geographical but also in historical terms (see Acemoglu D.).
Many of the Harris' theories are plausible but too few facts and resea
Gil Diaz F.
Nov 14, 2014 Gil Diaz F. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
This book is interesting it explains many things like the origins (reasons) of cultures, civilizations, wars, sexual taboos. The most important part for me is why civilizations from Europe, middle east and China developed technologies, science more than (much more than) civilizations from the Americas (Aztecs,Incas etc.).

That explains why Christopher Columbus(Europe) discovered the Americas and why NOT Montezuma(Aztecs/Native Americans/Incas) discovered Europe.
May 23, 2013 Andrew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic read. This book examines the history of civilization in an ecological context. What drove some hunter-gatherer groups to adopt agriculture? Why did certain styles of government originate in ecologically similar regions? We are biologically the same as pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, so what changed to push us in this direction? Our environment.
Katelis Viglas
I read it in an electronic format. The argumentation is convincing and interesting. Marvin Harris is an original writer, who developed the theory of cultural materialism in extenso. But the book is old, and he did not predict the changes that came. So one has to question, if his theory is sustainable
Paul De Belder
Jan 31, 2017 Paul De Belder rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
If you've read Jared Diamond's "Guns, germs and steel" you'll love this book. It has similar ideas but looked at from an anthropologist's viewpoint. It's quite a bit older, making some of the references to current history dated. I'm always a bit suspicious about grand theories of world history, but it's a fascinating read.
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American anthropologist Marvin Harris was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx's emphasis on the forces of production with Malthus's insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. Labeling demographic and production factors as infrastructure, ...more
More about Marvin Harris...

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“In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery” 4 likes
“Hindus and Westerners alike see in the meat-eating taboos of India a triumph of morals over appetite. This is a dangerous misrepresentation of cultural processes. Hindu vegetarianism was a victory not of spirit over matter but of reproductive over productive forces.” 3 likes
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