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Cannibals and Kings
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Listen in 27 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Marvin Harris

Cannibals and Kings

The progress of civilisation through innovation and change

If we believe in cultural determinism, then is it possible to predict the evolution of a civilisation using archeological, historical, ethnographical and environmental data. When a society begins to grow, and reaches the limits of the resources of the environment in which it is located, something changes, and this change usually results in catastrophe. Human history is full of such events because similar variables correspond to similar patterns. Thus the bands of hunters and gatherers, the primitive states, the great ancient empires, the feudal world and the Western civilisation of the modern age show us the path that we will probably be called to take: resources are not infinite, the environment cannot sustain us forever, living conditions change, and another cycle is just around the corner.

Cannibals and Kings
Read in 22 min.
Listen in 27 min.

Life in the stone age wasn’t really that bad

Anthropologists warn us against overestimating the value of our progress and underestimating the material and cultural wealth of our so-called ‘savage’ ancestors. This overestimation is based on a prejudice which comes from the Victorian age, has continued to this day, and often assumes that stone age life was nothing more than a drawn out wait for the development of agriculture, to trigger progress and improve people’s lives. Looking at this objectively, industrial civilisation has also caused great damage to our world, from pollution to the over production of poor quality products, to the very close link with the contemporary model of slavery - capitalism.

According to anthropologists, life in the stone age wasn’t that bad.

However, we shouldn’t demonise progress, far from it: it is undeniable that certain aspects of our quality of life have greatly improved since those times.

More than anything else, the question we really might want to ask is whether this progress will last, or whether it is destined for tragic decline, as was the case with other technologies and cultures in the past. This has to do, on the one hand, with the relationship between material and cultural well-being, and on the other, the cost-benefit of the system that enables and produces it. 

Determinism tells us that for every set of similar variables, there is a sequence of similar events. If we look at human history, it seems to follow the same pattern over and over again: population increase means an increased level of production, which means crisis. This is the chain of events that has driven human history, as opposed to it being a result of the free will or moral choice, either of individuals or of society as a whole.


The key ideas of "Cannibals and Kings"

Life in the stone age wasn’t really that bad
The natural relationship between nature and production seals the fate of a population
Nature pushed humans out of the primaeval “garden of Eden”
How an environmental crisis pushed humanity in the direction of agriculture
A crisis of resources led to the invention of war
How ancient states began
The history of the pre-Columbian states of Central America
Why the Aztecs were cannibals
In Europe the availability of food stopped the practice of animal sacrifice and cannibalism
The reasons for the prohibition of meat were ecological, not moral
Large irrigation systems are a freedom trap
Capitalism is the last of the many cycles that have existed throughout human history
Take-home message
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