Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was born September 13, 1931 to Laurence K. Marshall, founder of Raytheon Corporation, and Lorna McLean Marshall. She grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduated from Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts in 1949, and then attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. After one year at Smith, her father retired from Raytheon and led the family on an anthropological expedition to the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. The Marshall family was among the first to meet and study the Bushmen. They returned to the Kalahari many times in the next few years and often stayed for up to a year. From notes that she took during her experiences, she wrote The Harmless People (1959).
In 1954, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas graduated from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a degree in English. As a student, she wrote a fictional account of the Bushmen that won a short story contest in Mademoiselle. “The Hill People” was later published in the Best of American Short Stories of 1953.
In 1956, she married Stephen Thomas. They have two children, Stephanie and Ramsey. With them she returned to Africa to study the Doboth people. Her account of these experiences was titled Warrior Herdsmen (1965).
Although Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was not trained as an anthropologist, she keenly observed and recorded the lives of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. In her account of these experiences, she presents a clear picture of the customs and the daily lives of a people living in very primitive conditions. The hunting and gathering activities are clearly described in a style reads as a novel rather than an ethnographic (anthropological) study. Hunters, vain young women, young boys, older women, the landscape, the plants and the animals are vividly portrayed. The reader is caught up in the everyday life and drama of the Bushmen as well as their ongoing struggle for survival.
Over the years, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has written many articles and books including some novels. Most recently she published The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993) and The Tribe of the Tiger (1994). Most fascinating of her novels is The Reindeer Moon (1987), which is the story of a young girl in a prehistoric culture. Using knowledge that she gained from living with and observing primitive societies, Marshall Thomas was able to create a virtual culture and lifestyle of persons living in precarious situations. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a keen observer of the lives of others. These observations have done much to advance the knowledge of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.
Her novels are important because they translate her observations of human life into believable fictional cultures. It is well worth one’s time to read and study Thomas’s work.
- Thomas, E. M. (1959). The harmless people. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Thomas, E. M. (1981). Warrior herdsmen. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Thomas, E. M. (1987). Reindeer moon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.