Marvin Harris, 74; Anthropologist, Writer


Aztecs practiced ritualistic human sacrifice and cannibalism because they needed animal protein. Hindus don’t eat cows because the one-time steak dinner would destroy a steady supply of milk and butter, dung for fuel and power for pulling the plow.

Marvin Harris, a controversial anthropologist who espoused those theories and many more, has died. He was 74.

Harris, who wrote 17 books detailing his observations and taught cultural anthropology at Columbia University and the University of Florida, died Thursday in Gainesville, Fla., of complications following hip surgery.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Harris, who grew up wondering about the millions of New Yorkers surrounding him, developed a guiding philosophy that human habits develop to fill basic needs in the most economical way. He called his theory “cultural materialism” and used the phrase as the title for one of his books.


“Westerners think that Indians would rather starve than eat their cows. What they don’t understand is that they will starve if they do eat their cows,” he once told Psychology Today. “During droughts and famines in India, farmers who succumb to the temptation to kill their cows seal their [own] doom; for when the rains come they will be unable to plow their fields.”

Harris’ other theories have included:

* Jews and Muslims ban eating pork because pigs eat the same food as humans and provide nothing in return but bacon and ham, while sheep, goats and cattle eat grass but provide wool, milk and labor as well as protein.

* The South American rain forest’s Yanomamo wage war because over-hunting produces food shortages.


* Dogs are considered unfit to eat in North America and areas where they are needed to hunt other animals supplying abundant protein, but are delicacies in countries that have little game or other edible animals.

* Horses have been good to eat or bad to eat depending on history’s need for them as beasts of burden and modes of travel.

* Appliances and other machines break because manufacturing executives today worry more about the bottom line and finding a better job than about product quality.

Other anthropologists and observers had almost as many opinions about Harris as he had about why people behave the way they do. Smithsonian magazine called him “one of the most controversial anthropologists alive.” The Washington Post described him as “a storm center in his field,” and The Times has accused him of “over-generalized assumptions.”


Yet reviewers always found Harris’ book-length theories “witty and cogent,” “such fun to read” and “marvelously readable,” and considered him “sure of his ground and articulate.”

In reviewing Harris’ 1981 book “America Now: Why Nothing Works,” in which the anthropologist recommended radically decentralizing the economy, The Times’ Don G. Campbell went so far as to write: “What he has to say is important, valid and--idealistic or not--his solutions to the trend toward economic concentration . . . are challenging and, from this corner, workable.”

Harris earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate at Columbia University and taught there from 1952 until 1980, serving as chairman of its department of anthropology for three years. For the last two decades, he was a graduate research professor at the University of Florida.

His cultural research took him around the world, from Brazil to Mozambique to India and back to New York’s Harlem. His books, mostly aimed at mainstream audiences, often had titles as intriguing as the theories they documented: “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches,” “Cannibals and Kings,” “Good to Eat” and “The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig.”


In 1971, Harris published “Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology,” which is widely used as an anthropology textbook.

He is survived by his wife, Madeline; and a daughter, Susan of the San Francisco Bay Area.