Saturday, September 10, 2016

Book Review: "Cannibals and Kings"

I recently finished my summer vacation reading, "Cannibals and Kings" by anthropologist Marvin Harris. It was a book that my brother had read for one of his classes as a history major. He correctly thought I'd like it & gave it to me.

 Among my favorite topics are cultural anthropology & ancient history. I've read a lot about peoples around the world and consider myself pretty well-informed about various cultures. However, this book gave me a completely new perspective on the dynamics of human civilization. It was very enlightening and opened my eyes to the processes that cause human collectives to act in certain ways.

The main purpose of "Cannibals and Kings" is to analyze the environmental pressures that result in seemingly peculiar cultural norms. The behaviors & institutions Harris studies are widely varied across time & geographic location. I'll sum up some of the thoughts he presents:

• Animal sacrifice characterized by the earliest religions, including Old Testament Judaism, served the function of valuable protein redistribution by the priestly class. Relatedly, many of the culinary taboos instituted as religious law by these societies were a result of the inability to sustain certain types of animals for food in a particular location. For instance, the pig was outlawed as "unclean" by Jewish law due to the fact that pigs are environmentally detrimental to maintain in the climate of the Middle East, more so than because of the possibility of parasites or other factors.

• Human sacrifice and cannibalism practiced by the Aztecs and other people was the result of the need for protein sources. It was also an institutional form of population control. The Aztecs, for example, had little in the way of abundant animal protein and this was a way to provide it, while keeping the exploding population, resulting from urbanization & expansion, in check. Of course, the major social drive for insitutionally-sanctioned murder was (and still is) to maintain the power structure of the elite class, by instilling fear in the population.


• Certain rigid political hierarchies arise as a result of the need for the social organization. That high level of bureaucracy is required when implementing large-scale hydraulic engineering for agriculture- such as that of the pharaonic dynasties of ancient Egypt and it's reliance on the sustenance of the Nile River.

• In India, the reverence of the cow as a sacred animal that cannot be eaten comes from the value of the animal as a source of agricultural work, which outweighs it's nutritional importance.

There are many other anthropological situations analyzed in the book, all of which I found truly fascinating and thought-provoking. As I said, it completely changed my understanding of these cultures of which I thought I had a relatively good understanding.

Most importantly, the author takes the cautionary tales presented by these studies of past societies and talks about our own precarious environmental situation. It is truly a case of "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." For all our accumulated knowledge and technical advancements, we just as susceptible to disaster if we mismanage our resources, especially food and water.

I would highly recommend "Cannibals and Kings" to anyone with a deep interest in history, anthropology, ancient cultures, human behavior, or the development of civilization. It was a rewarding read that changed my perspective and gave me greater insight into the human condition.

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