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Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,263 ratings  ·  81 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
Paperback, 368 pages
Published June 4th 1991 by Vintage (first published 1977)
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 ·  1,263 ratings  ·  81 reviews

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Nov 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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.
A Meneses
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction
Loved this one
Jun 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
An utterly fascinating and fundamental work of anthropology on the origins of culture and the flow of life. Granted, a bit too much theory and a bit dated, as this is a work from 1977. Therefore, some parts have surely been more extensively covered since then. Yet this has clearly been influential and left its marks on the field.

This is a fast (292 pages, the rest is bibliography) and easily digestible read with chapters being short and limited in terms of tangiality, and furthermore not too ac
Aug 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Marvin Harris was my thesis adviser, back in the day.

This book is a presentation of some of his work, as on “sacred cows” and food taboos, and a presentation of his views on how to understand human history.

It was an easy read, because I still love this stuff. A few highlights and comments:

Harris’s view, which he calls “cultural materialism” is that how people meet their material needs constrains their social institutions and ideologies. Thus, for instance, the need for massive water management
Mar 23, 2010 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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.
Mary Paul
Sep 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One of my all-time favorites. I wish this got half the attention "guns, germs, and steel" gets with the promo machine (not a fan of that one, I think it's dreadful). If you like this, definitely check out "good to eat".
Marx Dagger
Apr 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is a studious and thorough examination of how reproductive pressures and ecological limitations lead to specific cultural adaptations.

His explanation of how Kings and Chiefs came to power goes well with Robert Carneiro's Circumscription theory, which Carneiro has revised and expanded since this book's publication. The new version of Carneiro's circumscription theory is definitely worth a read if you liked Harris' take on how chiefs evolved into kings.

How Chiefs Came to Power by Timot
Dennis Littrell
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Harris is often imitated, but never equaled

Legendary anthropologist Marvin Harris is perhaps the most readable ethnological writer of all. I read his celebrated Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches years ago with delight. This volume, written in the mid seventies, is also delightful. It's a little dated in spots, of course, and Harris's opinions are sometimes just opinions; and in some cases he is clearly out of sync with the most recent discoveries, but all is forgiven because he is just so interestin
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Overall a very interesting book. My review is done in bullet points as to what I found interesting.
-Reproductive pressures predisposed our stone age ancestors to resort to intensification as a response to declining numbers of big game animals caused by climatic changes at the end of the last ice age. Intensification of the hunting and collecting mode of production in turn set the stage for adoption of agriculture, which led in turn to heightened competition among groups, an increase in warfare
Michelle Boyer-Kelly
I am very lucky to have Bookman's, a local buy-sell-trade bookstore, because I have found an infinite amount of hidden gems hiding throughout the shelves. That can be said of Cannibals and Kings, which drew me in because... cannibals... and won me over with its intense discussion of civilization, adaptation, and general anthropology.

You probably don't hear this often, but this was a fun anthropology book. It was a quick read, largely in part because I couldn't put it down once I started reading
Andrew Foote
May 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: to-reread
This was the first proper anthropology book I read, back in 2015, so it was very interesting to me, although probably more for the general familiarity it gave me with anthropology than its specific conclusions.

Marvin Harris's particular approach to anthropology is known as cultural materialism; it involves seeing the cultural practices of societies as essentially adaptations the environment in which they live. One limitation of the book is that it as far as I remember (it was 4 years ago that I
Bartley Sharkey
Dec 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Similarly interesting book as Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, this felt like more of a thought experiment covering the evolution of multiple different cultures across the globe and throughout the ages. There was some repetition with the previous book but also lots of thoughtful ideas on the forces that led people of different regions to develop customs ranging from eating human flesh, to banning the consumption of pig meat or worshiping cows as the principle givers of life.

The book was written in
Dan Relluchs
Jun 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
It's not a page turner but it's an interesting account of the history of man. Is it an origin of culture? That claim doesn't hold up today. For a start it doesn't offer a definition for culture. It doesn't mention the history and transmission of ideas as a factor in steering history and that seems vital. (Unless this is omitted as being obvious that it arises from the same environmental pressures that he ascribes everything else coming from).

Considering it was writen in the late 70s it's held up
Loya Jirga
Feb 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
From the historical process why pig became forbidden in islam, why human cannibalism was logical at its time, why there was a time where leaders are great givers instead of great hoarders, to the driving force of booms and busts of human reproduction, this book is a treasure trove of knowledge.
Mike Flake
Jan 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Many years ago I took an anthropology course at Purdue University. This book was required reading for the course and it made a deep impression on my understanding of human culture and it's richness. A must read.
Sep 21, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Akash Kaushik
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Holy cow is not so holy after all !
Mario Alemi
Jun 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
One of the most enlightening books I ever read!
Jul 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
extra star for being candid and getting your point across... if you like this I highly recommend Escape From Evil, Ernest Becker
Lindsay Kay
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book is a little hard to review but I’ll try my best. I’m a first year Anthropology student and I picked this book up so that I could read a little bit more about my major. Overall I really enjoyed it, I thought that Harris did a good job of explaining his point of view in a logical and cohesive way. I like the examples that he used, and the way his arguments in the later half of the book clearly build on things he’s already established. My only “issue” with this is that if you are entirely ...more
Apr 14, 2013 rated it really liked it

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
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“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
James Curcio
Jul 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
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'
Jan 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
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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

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