Anthropology: reading guide

Anthropology: reading guide's reading guide to anthropology, specifically texts of relevance to those with a radical outlook on society.


  • Mutual Aid and the Foraging Mode of Thought: Re-reading Kropotkin on the Khoisan - Alan Barnard - Article from Social Evolution & History 3/1: 3–21; inspired by Kropotkin, one of the world’s leading hunter-gatherer specialists explains anarchism and the Khoisan peoples.
  • Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: the False Coin of Our Own Dreams - David Graeber - Necessary reading if you want to understand how everything connects up, reexamining a century of anthropological thought about value and exchange.
  • Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology - David Graeber - An attempt at outlining areas of research that might be explored in creating a body of anarchist social theory. If you’re an anarchist, you’ll find inspiration on every page.
  • Debt: The First 5000 Years - David Graeber - Book analysing the function of debt in human history from ancient civilisations to our modern-day economic crises. Arguably the best book on economics since Marx’s Capital – and easier to read!
  • Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence - Article by Peter Gray from the American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522; argues that hunter-gatherers promoted, through cultural means, the playful side of their
    human nature and this made possible their egalitarian, intensely cooperative ways of living. If you’ve forgotten how to play, you’ve forgotten the meaning of life.
  • Hunter-gatherer Childhoods: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives - Barry Hewlett and Michael Lamb (eds.) - Collection of contributions on the experiences of children in hunter-gatherer societies.
  • Boiling Energy. Community healing among the Kalahari Kung - Richard Katz - Thrilling introduction to Bushman systems of ritual and belief, with a special focus on community healing through trance.
  • The Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society - Richard Lee - The best ever introduction to ‘primitive communism’, not as a theory but a living reality.
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers - Richard Lee amd Richard Daly (eds.) - An accessible, authoritative survey of world hunter-gatherer studies. Includes John Gowdy’s useful summary: Hunter-Gatherers and the Mythology of the Market.
  • Ekila: Blood, Bodies and Egalitarian Societies - Jerome Lewis - Article from Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Brilliantly illuminating explanation of how and why beliefs concerning the potency of menstruation help maintain hunter-gatherer egalitarianism.
  • Believing and Seeing. Symbolic meanings in Southern San rock paintings - David Lewis-Williams - Celebrating a girl’s first menstruation, the ‘Eland Bull Dance’ was traditionally the major ceremony staged by the Kalahari Bushmen. Lewis-Williams interprets Southern African rock art in the light of Bushman rituals of trance and initiation.
  • The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx: Studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock - Karl Marx - Toward the end of his life, Karl Marx became increasingly fascinated by the anthropological research of his day, attempting to keep abreast of all the latest developments.
  • Karl Marx and the Iroquois - Franklin Rosemont - Marx discovers ‘primitive communism’ in action and is inspired.
  • The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia - James Scott - For two thousand years people in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia have fled the projects of the states that surround them — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics and warfare. Scott evaluates why people would deliberately remain stateless.
  • Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance - James Scott - ‘Everyday resistance’ consists of footdragging, non-compliance, pilfering, desertion, feigned ignorance, sabotage, flight etc. For a summarised version of Scott's groundbreaking argument, read [url=]Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.
  • Primitive Communism, Barbarism and the Origins of Class Society - Lionel Sims - Excellent overview of world history in the spirit of Engels.
  • Anthropology: Reclaiming the dragon (what was primitive communism?) - Lionel Sims - Article arguing that class society and patriarchy only arose ten thousand years ago and that for over a hundred thousand years we lived in more gender-egalitarian and anarchist/communist hunter-gatherer societies.
  • The Forest People - Colin Turnbull - Book on the lives and feelings of the BaMbuti pygmies. If you don’t know anything about anthropology, start here. You will be inspired.
  • A Black Civilization - William Lloyd Warner - The best-ever detailed description of an Australian Aboriginal system of kinship, ritual and belief.
  • Egalitarian Societies - James Woodburn - An account of the conditions under which egalitarianism prevails.


  • Male Daughters, Female Husbands. Gender and sex in an African society - Ifi Amadiume - If you thought gender was 'masculine' versus 'feminism', think again. African gender turns it all upside down!
  • Women Like Meat. The folklore and foraging ideology of the Kalahari Ju/'hoan - Megan Biesele - Hunter-gatherer women don't fancy lazy men. If a man wants sex, he needs to make himself useful.
  • Blood Magic. The anthropology of menstruation - Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb (eds) - Menstruation is still a taboo topic in western culture. In most other cultures, menstruation is considered a 'supernatural' force impossible to ignore.
  • The Making of Great Men - Maurice Godelier - The classic Marxist study of initiation into 'Big Man' status, with all the accompanying patriarchal mythology.
  • The Palm and the Pleiades. Initiation and cosmology in northwest Amazonia - Stephen Hugh-Jones - One of the most vivid and convincing studies of mythology as collective intelligence.
  • The Elementary Structures of Kinship - Claude Lévi Strauss - Despite its flaws, this remains the most ambitious and successful study of the world's variegated systems of kinship and marriage.
  • Our Women are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush - Wynne Maggi - How women can achieve liberation through collective action - an intimate account of the lives of Kalash women.
  • The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia - Bronisław Malinowski - Don’t be discouraged by the lurid title. Malinowksi was a reactionary, but this book is today widely regarded as the finest ethnography ever published. When women have solidarity and power, both sexes benefit from a sexually liberated society.
  • Those who Play with Fire: Gender, fertility and transformation in East and Southern Africa - Henrietta Moore, Todd Sanders and Bwire Kaare (eds) - The best anthropological introduction to the theoretical complexities of gender.
  • To Hunt in the Morning - Janet Siskind - The title is inspired by the early writings of Karl Marx. The book describes how women in a Native American tribe go playfully on sex-strike to persuade their men to hunt and bring back the meat.

Human origins

  • Hierarchy in the Forest. The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior - Christopher Boehm - Book explaining how consciousness and culture emerged out of a social revolution. If you read nothing else on human origins read this.
  • The Cradle of Language - Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight (eds) - Book on the evolutionary emergence of language in Africa.
  • Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals - Frans de Waal - Moral feelings and behaviour in our closest primate relatives.
  • Primate Social Systems - Robin Dunbar - The best book ever written on the social and political arrangements of our closest living relatives, monkeys and apes, with everything explained in materialist terms.
  • The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View - Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight and Camilla Power (eds.) - A representative selection of short, readable contributions on the origins of language and culture in human beings.
  • The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life - Emile Durkheim - The most influential account ever written on why our ancestors invented rituals and beliefs about supernatural powers.
  • The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State - Friedrich Engels - Although outdated in places, this remains necessary reading for anyone interested in the roots of women’s oppression.
  • Early Human Kinship - Nicholas Allen, Hilary Callan, Robin Dunbar and Wendy James (eds.) - Collection of original studies from leading figures in the biological sciences, social anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics to provide a major breakthrough in the debate over human evolution and the nature of society. Many of the chapters provide evidence that early human kinship was matrilneal.
  • Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding - Sarah Hrdy - This book by leading evolutionary anthropologist and Darwinian feminist Sarah Hrdy is the best on human evolution this century, describing co-operative childcare as the secret of human origins and emotional modernity. If Engels were still alive, he would love it!
  • Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture - Chris Knight - Evolutionary biology, archaeology, social anthropology and human origins from a Marxist perspective.
  • The Human Symbolic Revolution: A Darwinian account - Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Ian Watts - How human evolution culminated in a revolution. With peer commentary and critique.
  • As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind - Marek Kohn - A brilliant science journalist discusses the evolution of language and mind. Highly readable and informative.
  • The Roots of Civilization: The cognitive beginnings of man’s first art, symbol and notation - Alexander Marshack - Ice Age art, with a special emphasis on the moon and lunar calendars.
  • Rethinking the Human Revolution: new behavioural and biological perspectives on the origin and dispersal of modern humans - Paul Mellars, Katie Boyle, Ofer Bar-Yosef and Christopher Stringer (eds) - How human evolution culminated in ‘the human revolution’, now viewed as a process of accelerated change occurring in Africa during the Middle Stone Age.
  • Religion And Anthropology: A Critical Introduction - Brian Morris - An anarchist anthropologist asks how and why people across the world construct and sustain their different faiths.
  • Stone Age Economics - Marshall Sahlins - For hunter-gatherers, the whole point of possessing something is to be able to make a gift of it. The author explains how and why hunter-gatherers prefer to assume affluence and superabundance, not economic scarcity and competition.


Apr 28 2013 18:14

Dunbar. 1988. Primate Social Systems. Chapman Hall and Yale University Press

Graeber, D (2001). Toward an anthropological theory of value: the false coin of our own dreams. Palgrave.
Graeber, D (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Prickly Paradigm Press
Graeber, D (2009). Direct action: an ethnography. AK Press.
Graeber, D (2011). Debt: The First 5000 Years. Melville House.

Scott, JC. 'Everyday forms of peasant resistance'
Scott, JC. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, 2009
Scott, JC. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press, 1985 ISBN 0-300-03336-2
Scott, JC. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, 1979

Apr 28 2013 21:48

Hey, so this stuff all looks really really good, but do you reckon you could add some short introductions to articles, saying what they're about or why they're interesting/useful? Something along the lines of what we've done with our other reading guides i.e. this one for work or for Italy in the 60s-70s.

That way we could stick it with our libcom reading guide that we're trying to integrate more into the rest of the site..

Jun 12 2013 06:44

Mbah, S (1997). African Anarchism. See Sharp Press. - Discusses anarchistic elements in traditional African societies, with a focus on Nigeria. See also

Jul 4 2013 03:07

Thanks for this list!

but where's Lewis Mumford? ? ?

Myth of the Machine
Technics and Civilization
really great stuff on human development, especially relating to power.

Nov 22 2013 10:21

In Search of the Primitive by Stanley Diamond. A classic on critiquing the civilization. "Diamond views the anthropologist who refuses to become a searching critic of his own civilization as not merely irresponsible, but a tool of Western Civilization."

Then, why not John Zerzan at all? There are some brilliant recent pieces by John, like:

Origins of the One Percent: the Bronze Age. [i]A look into the Bronze-Age civilizations and how the basic tenets of our modern life, so. class society, that we use to think as very recent were already well established during the Bronze Age.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 20 2014 16:32

Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Black Badger
Jan 20 2014 19:38

Diamond is not an anthropologist. His books on geographical determinism have been roundly condemned by every reputable anthropologist who's bothered to read and respond to him.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 20 2014 22:57

Ah, Black Badger, delivered in the friendly, comradely style we've all come to expect from you.

Anyway, fair enough I guess. I'm no anthropologist myself and hence the question mark.

Joseph Kay
Jun 10 2015 17:44

There's a good critique of Diamond here:

I argue that although Diamond makes interesting points, his work from Guns, Germs, and Steel to Collapse is a distorting disservice to the real historical record. Diamond’s claim–that the differential success of the world’s nations is due to the accidents of agriculture, except when societies “choose to fail”–not only does not withstand scrutiny, it should not be promoted or taught.

(as well as other good stuff on that site)

Joseph Kay
Jun 10 2015 17:49
hedgehog wrote:
[Debit is] Arguably the best book on economics since Marx’s Capital

*argues nope*

Jun 10 2015 18:57

SO anglo-centric!

Pierre Clastres - Society against the state
Claude Levi-Strauss - The Way of the Masks
Franz Boas - entirety of his work
Marcel Mauss - The Gift (more sociology)
Bronisław Malinowski
Lewis Henry Morgan
Paul Kirchoff - Defined MesoAmerica - also was KAPD in germany and became Bordigist in Mexico

Sister Ray
Jun 10 2015 20:02

What's wrong with Guns, Germs & Steel? Sure Jared Diamond is no radical, and there's bits of it you can dispute, but I actually thought it was quite refreshing to see someone advocating a materialist conception of history rather than a stupid 'great men' theory.

Joseph Kay
Jun 10 2015 20:11
Sister Ray
Jun 10 2015 20:36

Yeah I didn't really agree with much of that critique. I haven't read 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed', so I can't comment on that. But I think the criticisms of Guns Germs and Steel are a bit weak. They basically amount to:

1. The analysis is overly deterministic, leaving no room for people's agency or for criticism of the Europeans' colonial actions.

2. Diamond neglects the fact that indigenous peoples joined forces with the Spanish

My response would be:

1. Could you not apply the same criticism to Marx's analysis of capitalism? Marx explains a lot of phenomena in capitalist society in terms of the material factors behind them, but the existance of those factors doesn't mean individual capitalists are automatons mindlessly following the 'laws' of capitalism. I don't think it's a valid criticism anyway, you can understand the material reasons behind something happening without absolving the people involved of all responsibility. Obviously the conquistadors/colonialism were/are brutal and reprehensible but that doesn't preclude us analysing the economic/physical factors behind why they occurred.

2. Well he's tried to cover the entire history of the world in a single volume, so there's bound to be some details missing. A valid criticism but a bit nitpicky and doesn't invalidate the entire book.

Joseph Kay
Jun 10 2015 20:53

Imho the point that having guns/germs/steel doesn't mean you have to infect and slaughter people is pretty valid. At most, favourable biogeography is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for conquest. Iirc Diamond runs into this problem discussing Ming China, when he resorts to ad hoc discussion of fragmented (European) vs unified (Chinese) polities (which I think is interesting, as I have a more IR background, but it needs to be theorised, not used to rescue an inadequate analysis).

Imho this isn't so much about blaming or absolving individual conquistadors, but an incomplete account of underlying causes, which have biogeographic, as well as international-societal and political-economic determinations. The point about the Spanish alliances with indigenous rebels is pertinent here; even the undoubted military advantage of guns/germs/steel wasn't decisive on its own, but was layered with social/political factors.

Sister Ray
Jun 10 2015 22:08
Imho the point that having guns/germs/steel doesn't mean you have to infect and slaughter people is pretty valid

Yeah but I don't think Diamond was ever claiming that? I thought his point was more about if it did come to slaughtering one another, leaving aside for the moment why that happened, why was one side victorious over the other? Why did one side have a technological superiority over the other? And I think that's a very interesting question to ask in the context of the time periods he discusses, i.e. the beginnings of colonialism and mercantilism and essentially very early capitalism.

I think maybe you only see his writing as problematic if you assume it to be the be-all and end-all of the analysis. Like you say biogeographic factors are not the whole story, obviously those of us from a more libcom persuasion would emphasise the sociopolitical aspects, class etc but rooted in the same kind of materialist analysis that Diamond employs. I hope I'm making sense I don't really have any background in anthropology or history!

Sister Ray
Jun 10 2015 22:16

Been reading a load of the other articles on that site you posted the link to btw, not keen on the Diamond critique but some of the other stuff on there is really good smile

Joseph Kay
Jun 11 2015 12:09

That all makes sense. For me, the 'one note riff' thing rang true. I read Guns, Germs and Steel a long time ago (before I'd read Marx or any anarchism), and was impressed. But then when I read more I started to see all the limits of it (and realise it's not as original as the accolades suggest). That's all fine, as far as it goes. But I'm sympathetic to the criticism that it's not just a popularisation or a missed opportunity, but tends to actively close off/dismiss those other layers of explanation, even when it resorts to ad hoc arguments like the one about geopolitical unity/fragmentation.

Oct 11 2015 21:13

Two books already mentioned by fnbrill...

Pierre Clastres - Society Against the State

Marcel Mauss - The Gift

Both are essential to this list and should be right up there at the top.

As for Diamond, I'd prob leave him out of this list smile

Jul 10 2018 21:00

If you don't feel like reading, Radical Anthropology Group has a ton of interesting lecture videos and audio:

Also maybe this could be included:
Paul Kirchhoff - Ethnology, historical materialism and dialectical method

Dec 27 2021 11:42

Has anyone read and critically reviewed the 1918 book 'The Freedom of Things' -An Ethnology of Control by Peter Harrison. I have read this a while back and whilst finding significant areas I disagree with it touches others I'm too ill informed about to comment further.

darren p
Dec 27 2021 15:33

There was a review here:

If you don't have institutional access you can find it on Libgen

Tom Henry
Jan 3 2022 01:36

While I am briefly here, just to blow my own trumpet: here is a snippet from the Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute (IKR!) review linked to by 'darren p' above:

"The freedom of things is the most interesting
anthropological work I’ve read in years, with some
stunning passages that strike me as Sahlinsian. Some
portions require serious work to navigate, but this is a
work worthy of the effort. While I diverged with
Harrison’s analysis on several vital points of
interpretation (including some of his core argument’s
discounting of the central importance of modes of
production, war in the tribal zone, etc.), I found much
to learn and think about in this brilliant treatise."

When I originally saw that it had been reviewed here I almost fell off my chair.