The Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

My “book reviews” to date – though they are more “random thoughts on books” than actual reviews – have fallen into two basic categories. Recently published books to which I had a very strong reaction – mostly of the not so positive kind – and my all-time favourites, which tend to be obscure books, often published many years ago. The kind that few people have read, and few will probably read – even after my glowing review! But this is my blog, so you’ll have to indulge me. The obscure ones do attract some attention though, as what I assume are college students, find my reviews while searching for study notes about the books. Somebody is choosing, at least in my opinion, good books for these students to read. Hopefully, I have been able to contribute to their book reports in a meaningful way! 🙂

One of my all-time favourites is a book called “The Tribe of Tiger – Cats and their Culture” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, an anthropologist by training (hence knowledgeable about human evolutionary development), deviates from the usual “cat book” by looking at cats (of all sizes) and their behaviour via the background of their evolutionary path.

The book starts with the following introduction:

One summer evening at our home in New Hampshire, my husband and I were startled to see two deer bolt from the woods into our field. No sooner had they cleared the thickets than they stopped, turned around, and, with their white tails high in warning, looked back at something close to the ground as if whatever frightened them also puzzled them. We were wondering aloud what might be threatening the deer when to our astonishment our own cat sprang from the bushes in full charge, ears up, tail high, arms reaching, claws out. The deer fled, and the cat, who fell to earth disappointed, watched them out of sight.

Our cat is a male and at the time was just two years old. He weighed seven pounds and stood eight inches at the shoulder, in contrast to his two intended victims, who weighed more than a hundred pounds apiece and stood three feet at the shoulder. Even so, the difference in size and the difficulty of the task seemed to mean nothing to our cat. We realized we hadn’t known him.

It is with this paragraph that the author starts her exploration of cat behaviour and how it has developed over the eons, since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. According to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas “The story of cats is a story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs“. In the first chapter, the author details the evolutionary past of the cat family – from the early cat-like species through to today’s domestic and “big cats”. The examples she gives “ . . . show something important about the cat family, that meat-eating is deeply ingrained in their nature. Consistent meat-eating explains much about all cats, from why, except for size and camouflage, there is very little difference among the thirty-two species of the family to why they seldom mark with feces but frequently use urine, which they spray.” She thinks that “  . . .  cats resemble each other because, so far, they have had no reason to change . . .” as they can eat any kind of animal protein. As she says “From a cat’s point of view, the difference between a bird who eats cherries, a fish who eats algae , and a giraffe who eats acacia thorns is mainly one of quantity.” [Of course, she doesn’t include any examples of modern house cats like Lucy (our cat), who has IBD and is allergic to certain animal proteins, in her discussion!] So in the author’s opinion everything about cats, including how their body structure developed, their temperament, their patterns of behaviour and their abilities as supreme hunters, all developed as a function of their diet.

I found the stories she relates and the way she tells those stories, very interesting and entertaining. I especially loved her descriptions of cougars in the United States and lions in the Kalahari desert (For those new to this blog – the Kalahari is one of my favourite places in the world!).

Another excerpt from the book:

Is the concept of cats owning property far-fetched? I don’t think so. All wild cats need territory—that’s why they establish home ranges. But where does the concept end? This question, I think, has no simple answer but should not be ignored. Why own a home range if no food can be found on it? I submit that the cat who owns the property also has a proprietary interest in the food supply. In fact, to keep the food source for himself or herself is the single most important reason for the cat to claim the property in the first place. In this spirit, housecats display a proprietary interest in their owners, marking them with wipes of the lips, rearing up to incise their legs with claw scratches, occasionally spraying them and their belongings and defending them from the advances of other cats. Why? Because a supply of food issues from a housecat’s owner in much the same way that a supply of wildebeests issues from parts of the savanna or a supply of Arctic hares issues from a few square miles of taiga forest . . .

. . .  Ownership of a ranch, whether communal or individual, often makes the difference of life or death to a cat. Not only does the ranch provide the cat with shelter, food, and water but the land and its inhabitants become familiar to the cat in great detail, which is extremely helpful to any hunter. Cats often rest where they can view their holdings—they watch the movements of their livestock and can assess the condition of each animal they see. In all likelihood, they even know some of the prey animals personally, so they know who is aging, who is sick, who has calved or has been bested in a battle or weakened by ticks. Such knowledge combined with knowledge of the cover and topography cannot help but contribute to successful hunting. Once in an Idaho forest I was shown the carcass of a deer killed by a female puma who obviously had known that a deer trail led through a certain heavy growth of trees and had reached the area by creeping through a shallow draw. Chance could hardly have brought her there just at the exact moment when a deer was passing. Rather, she had obviously planned the hunt in advance, had crept along where she knew she could hide, and had perhaps been waiting for the deer. After killing it, she had eaten her fill, and then, covering the carcass with leaves to hide it from birds, she had gone off to rest at a little distance. But she had kept her food under surveillance and had returned to eat from it again and again until all the meat was gone. We found only the shins with hooves and scraps of hairy hide, the parts that pumas usually discard when preparing their food before eating it. A year later, these parts still lay near the edge of the draw as a tribute to an excellent hunter, a Diana of the Douglas firs who understood not only her prey but also the topography.

A criticism of the book is that, after the first chapter on the evolution of the cat family, the author does jump around in terms of topics covered. And some have criticized the book as being more anecdotal than a proper scientific discussion. During my years of working in scientific research, I often saw scientists starting to form new theories from anecdotal evidence, and then later testing those theories.  That’s really how I see this book . . . a collection of theories which may or may not prove correct in time. Even if the theories she puts forward are just suppositions, they do make you think. And you begin to watch your own cat with completely different eyes!

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Categories: Books/Book Reviews, Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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13 Comments on “The Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas”

  1. June 5, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    It sounds very interesting. I would like to read this. I don’t have a cat just now, but i love them and would like to have another. We still miss our Tallulah afrer more than 3 years without her. Travelling a lot makes cat ownership a bit difficult.

    • June 5, 2011 at 11:02 am #

      Yes, I agree. It would not be fair on a cat to leave it for long periods of time. What I did when I live in an apartment, is to make friends with the neighbours’ cats and get my “feline fix” that way.

  2. June 5, 2011 at 12:54 am #

    I do so agree: it is a rash scientist who ignores anecdotal evidence. Keeping an open mind is surely the basis for all scientific research. Good book review:)

  3. June 5, 2011 at 2:45 am #

    I would definitely read this 🙂 Meoooow

    • June 5, 2011 at 11:04 am #

      My next post is about Lucy, so please come back to read that. Think you’re her #1 fan in the US! 😉

  4. June 5, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I like the cover photo!

    • June 5, 2011 at 11:07 am #

      The one looks like family of Walter. By the way, I’ve always wanted a “stripy” cat – think they’re so beautiful. But every time I go to adopt a cat from the animal shelter, a black & white one picks me!

  5. jacquelincangro
    June 6, 2011 at 2:09 am #

    What an interesting book. I guess the old adage holds true for cats too: you are what you eat! 🙂

    • June 6, 2011 at 6:14 am #

      That is so true! “You are what you eat” would have been a brilliant title for this post.

  6. June 6, 2011 at 5:21 am #

    This sounds like a fabulous book, Lisa! Gotta love that cat from the introduction! Cats are amazing creatures!

    • June 6, 2011 at 6:15 am #

      I agree, cats are amazing. After reading this book I’m beginning to see the “wild” in Lucy.

  7. botoncandy
    January 10, 2016 at 11:09 pm #

    I love tabbies too, but tuxedo cats are awesome!

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