40 Great Anthropology Books That Anyone Can Appreciate

Humans studying humans is what anthropology essentially boils down into. Considering what all the subject entails, it comes as no shock to anyone at all that many find it absolutely gripping. But not everyone ends up with a formal education or profession in or near the field, thus rendering some reads a little too technical. But fortunately, a right fair amount of excellent popular anthropology books exist to make the extremely nuanced topic accessible to anyone.

As anthropology feeds from such a diverse range of scientific and liberal arts subjects, this list (which reflects no intentional order) seeks to reflect that structure rather than focusing on one in particular. Therefore, many worthwhile reads ended up slashed for space and time reasons, but that doesn’t mean their words ought to go unconsidered. Look them up when desiring a much broader glimpse at humanity’s possible pasts, presents and futures.

  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

    This Pulitzer winner makes history, geopolitics, agriculture, technology, and other factors contributing to anthropology (and imperialism) engaging and accessible.

  2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

    Anthropology involves plenty of genetic research, so understanding the basics behind how humans become humans is crucial; renowned biologist Richard Dawkins has professionals and hobbyists alike covered.

  3. Spoken Here by Mark Abley

    Languages themselves grow and change in the exact same ways as organic beings, which means they can also die out when displaced. Spoken Here takes readers around the world on a journey through some of the most threatened tongues in the world.

  4. Cod by Mark Kurlansky

    Readers will believe a fish can, well, not fly, obviously, but at least completely alter the course of human existence. In his most popular, accessible food history, Mark Kurlansky explores the role the humble cod played in shaping some of mankind’s most game-changing moments.

  5. Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris

    An anthropologist explains the complex relationship between geography, ecology and the gradual evolution of different cultures around the world, not to mention their interactions.

  6. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

    Psychology, history and mythological narratives collide in one of the most influential anthropological works of all time, which peels back the cognition (and startling similarities) behind narratives ancient and modern.

  7. 1491 by Charles C. Mann

    The reality of life for pre-Columbian Americans shortly before the Italian explorer and his ilk devastated their existence comes to extremely vivid life, dissolving many of the still-circulating myths and misconceptions.

  8. The Body Silent by Robert F. Murphy

    In his emotional, provocative memoir, anthropologist Robert F. Murphy opens up about his descent into quadriplegia and the unfortunate truths behind perceptions of the disabled it eventually revealed.

  9. Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay

    Great for parents and teachers to share with eager kids, Motel of the Mysteries hilariously satirizes archaeology and anthropology while simultaneously offering up some nourishing food for thought about their assumptions about ancient peoples.

  10. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

    Though not explicitly about humanity, anyone interested in anthropology should study the most groundbreaking (not to mention controversial) work on genetics and evolution ever published.

  11. Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss

    This deeply existential read filters the meaning of cultural evolution through a philosophical lens, though one not so complex general audiences couldn’t enjoy it!

  12. The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade:

    Even though the world tends to divide itself along religious and secular lines, Mircea Eliade observes that even those without religious convictions still gravitate towards something larger than themselves.

  13. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

    Biologist, adventurer and author Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five set off on a majestic Pacific voyage in a rickety raft. Their goal revolved around solving an ancient mystery about the Polynesian peoples and a legendary leader known as Kon-Tiki.

  14. The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

    Haiti’s extremely misunderstood Vodou religion left a massive imprint on human development and history don’t realize, which one ethnobotanist discovered when investigating zombie claims.

  15. The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

    "Good" and "evil" people and actions form the core of almost every civilization’s narrative, so any anthropology buff would do well to grasp the psychology behind both heavy concepts.

  16. The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

    Apples, marijuana, tulips and potatoes ended up cultivated as a direct response to humanity’s specific needs, but for as much influence as they’ve had over societies, the societies have heavily impacted them in kind.

  17. The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

    Everything mainstream society assumes about IQ and other methods of "measuring" intelligence come crashing down thanks to paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and his twenty tons of science.

  18. The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

    Humans are really nothing more than superintelligent apes, so anyone even one iota interested in anthropology should understand their relationships with chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates.

  19. The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

    After spending her early adulthood with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas learned some incredible lessons about humanity’s hunter-gatherer roots, and what they have to teach contemporary societies relying on so much technology.

  20. Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

    Social media and other connective technologies enable a sort of communication completely unlike any other in history. Too bad it actually isolates more than truly promotes interactions and growth.

  21. Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

    Despite initially trying to hook up with the Amazon’s Piraha peoples with conversion intentions, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes‘s author grew more and more entranced by what they had to offer, to the point he pursued a linguistics career instead!

  22. Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff

    Figurative language holds far more of a cognitive sway than most individuals realize, and this amazing book illustrates the role it plays in shaping the world of the past, present and possible futures.

  23. In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall

    Popular primatologist Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking work with Tanzanian chimpanzees benefitted anthropologists as well, since it unlocked a few keys regarding human origins and behaviors.

  24. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Maitland Edey and Donald Johanson

    Lucy remains one of the most important paleoanthropological discoveries of all time, and her relationship to today’s humans receives a fascinating (and thorough!) exploration.

  25. The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

    Learn all about how forensic anthropology assisted UN-appointed scientists looking for evidence of genocide in Rwanda, Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia and how it resulted in some horrific truths about humanity’s capacity for great evil.

  26. Cloth and the Human Experience edited by Jane Schneider and Annette B. Weiner

    The content on the inside pretty much reflects exactly what the title on the outside promises: a seriously engaging essay series regarding how textiles alters humanity. And, of course, vice versa.

  27. The Lonely Crowd by Reuel Denney, Nathan Glazer and David Reisman

    Considered one of the 20th century’s most illuminating works about the American middle class, The Lonely Crowd picks apart how its creation and resulting conformity resulted in some isolationist sociological changes.

  28. When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball

    Most religions have their positives, and can inspire many to go on and accomplish amazing acts of humanity and social justice. But when it falls into the wrong hands, catastrophes result. Charles Kimball outlines five signs to look for in order to determine whether or not a sect or segment exists as potentially dangerous.

  29. The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

    Every one of today’s languages sprouted from a common seed, so anthropology fans with an affinity for linguistics will love reading along as the author traces how they’ve evolved over millennia.

  30. The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller

    Darwin’s lesser-known theory of sexual selection receives its due here, in an engaging popular anthropology read about how bowm chika ow ow time made humanity what it is today.

  31. The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

    In this incredibly interesting — if not outright controversial — book, a former editor of The New Republic reveals the core components of evolutionary psychology and its intimate interplay with anthropology.

  32. How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

    MIT’s lauded, bestselling Steven Pinker delivers the bizarre, beautiful, bizarrely beautiful and beautifully bizarre details of the human brain in a manner nonprofessionals will surely understand.

  33. Nisa by Marjorie Shostak

    Widely applauded as an anthropological classic, Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa furthered knowledge of the hunting-and-gathering !Kung peoples by relating the eponymous woman’s experiences in her own words.

  34. The First Human by Ann Gibbons

    Anthropologists, archaeologists and paleontologists are currently embroiled in a breakneck race to find the infamous missing link between humans and their ape ancestors — and it’s certainly a fun one to watch unfold!

  35. Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam

    American society possesses an uncanny ability to self-destruct, building rigid tropes for itself and marginalizing anyone who doesn’t fit, leading to increased disengagement.

  36. Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

    Even individuals who disagree with Carl Jung’s theories regarding the collective subconscious and dream interpretation should still check out his almost eerie inquiries into shared symbology anyways. Because it’s influential, that’s why.

  37. Europe and the People Without History by Eric R. Wolf

    Celebrated anthropologist Eric R. Wolf draws up a compelling care for his contemporaries to pay more heed to history than they usually do, as both fields constantly overlap and alter one another.

  38. Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz

    It’s nothing short of astounding that a simple carbohydrate — one which many in the developed world take for granted daily — genuinely held such massive control over human evolution, culture and destiny.

  39. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman

    The tragic potential dangers of miscommunication and cultural misunderstandings come relayed through the haunting story of a little Hmong girl whose parents and doctors butt heads over her epilepsy diagnosis.

  40. Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict

    Indigenous tribes in Canada, Melanesia and the United States serve as examples of Ruth Benedict’s ideas regarding how cultures develop over time and start adhering to their own unique ritualistic sets.

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