Nearly a century after the true nature of galaxies as distant 'island universes' was established, their origin and evolution remain great unsolved problems of modern astrophysics. One of the most promising ways to investigate galaxy formation is to study the ubiquitous globular star clusters that surround most galaxies. Globular clusters are compact groups of up to a few million stars. They generally formed early in the history of the Universe, but have survived the interactions and mergers that alter substantially their parent galaxies. Recent advances in our understanding of the globular cluster systems of the Milky Way and other galaxies point to a complex picture of galaxy genesis driven by cannibalism, collisions, bursts of star formation and other tumultuous events.