Anthropologist Elizabeth Colson dies in Zambia at 99

Berkeley — Elizabeth Colson, a trailblazing professor emerita in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, died Aug. 3 at the age of 99 at her home in Zambia, Africa. Since the 1940s, she studied social change related to forced displacement, migration, development, kinship and political anthropology that carried implications far beyond the African continent.

Friend and colleague Judith Justice, an associate professor of anthropology at UC San Francisco, said Colson was watching birds from the verandah of her home when she had a stroke and died. A celebration of Colson’s life followed.

Music, maize, cows and cabbages

“Truckloads of Zambians attended, tribal chiefs, university people, government people, Zambian(s) singing,” colleague Laura Nader, also a senior professor in anthropology at UC Berkeley, wrote in a remembrance of Colson. “They drummed and danced, drumming and singing to the grave. One hundred kilograms of maize meal was cooked, two cows were slaughtered, and 100 cabbages cut. Elizabeth Colson would have loved this last ritual.”

Anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, pictured above in Zambia in 2013, continued her field work in Africa until recent years. (Photo by Theodora Savory.)

Anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, pictured above in Zambia in 2013, continued her field work in Africa until recent years. (Photo by Theodora Savory.)

A native of Hewitt, Minn., Colson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology from the University of Minnesota in 1938 and 1940 respectively. She received her Ph.D. in 1945 in social anthropology from Radcliffe College, Harvard University.

As she launched her career, Colson conducted field research on women’s lives and social change among Pomo Indians in Ukiah, assimilation and resistance on the Northwest Coast Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, Wash., and the impacts of Japanese-American relocation at the World War II Poston Relocation Camp in Poston, Ariz.

Later she joined the Rhodes-Livingston Institute in Central Africa, first studying, in 1946, the marriage, family and political practices among the Plateau Tonga living near the railroad line in what was then Northern Rhodesia.  From 1947 to 1951, Colson served as the RLI’s director, overseeing the research and publication activity of the Institute. From there, she launched what became a classic study of an estimated 57,000 Gwembe Tongan people living in the Gwembe Valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe. She examined their lives both before and after they were forced to relocate as their traditional farmlands were flooded to make way for a dam on the Zambezi River and what was to be the then-world’s man-made largest lake.

David Leonard, a professor emeritus of political science at UC Berkeley as well as former head of the campus’s Center for African Studies, noted that Colson continued to study and work with the villagers until her death, “leaving a 70-year account of their genealogies, ethnographies and changing life chances.”

He also recalled that when she turned 67, the mandatory retirement age at UC Berkeley in 1984, she hired a post-doc to continue the field work she had begun.  “After a few months he quit,” Leonard said, “saying the living conditions were too difficult.  So Elizabeth went off to Zambia again to do the work herself – and she continued working in the field until her death.”

Refugees compared to resettlement

In conversation with interviewer Suzanna B. Reiss in 2000-2001 for a digital library biography, Colson discussed her life’s work and the difference between refugees and people resettled.

“People as refugees may flee as individuals and arrive where they will and then have to sort themselves out,” she said. “War moves in, and you move out fast, and you may go through very, very traumatic situations and suffer injury, physical violence and all that.

“People who are resettled for development…usually don’t go through that, but they are equally uprooted. Very often schemes are set up in which they’re supposed to be absorbed, where they don’t necessarily move where they want to move. They move where it’s decided that they should resettle.”

Colson noted that while she studied the forced resettlement of people in Africa’s Gwembe Valley, their storylines were not dissimilar from residents impacted by massive utility development by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States.

Mystery fan

Nader said that Colson, who loved detective fiction, loved to figure out puzzles: “How did the Makah of the Pacific Northwest assimilate, and what kept this population, which had intermarried with and assimilated to white society, together as an identifiable Native American community? How do societies without constituted political authority institutionalize ways of social control? Who becomes the focus of witchcraft accusations as the social ecology changes?”

While Colson maintained close ties and continued her research in Africa throughout her life, she also accepted university fellowships and teaching positions in England, Australia and the United States. She participated in a refugee studies program at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, which led to establishment of an annual lecture there in her honor, on the subject of forced migration.

Colson arrived at UC Berkeley in 1964 and stayed for 20 years.  She became the first woman to head the campus’s budget committee, and the first to deliver the Faculty Research Lecture, in 1983. Colson delivered the Bernard Moses Lecture in the Social Sciences in 1981.  The campus awarded her its highest honor, the Berkeley Citation, in 1985.

Colson also was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, received the outstanding achievement award from the Society of Women Geographers, being awarded the Rivers Memorial Medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute, delivered the Malinowski Distinguished Lecture for the Society for Applied Anthropology, and received the Distinguished Africanist Award from the American Association for African Studies.

A ‘consequence specialist’

She received the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award in 2015, which honors emeriti professors in the UC system for work after retirement. In an announcement about the honor, Colson was lauded for following “the sequence of events from the original upheaval to the present, from the point of view of those coping,” and was described as a “consequence specialist.”

In addition, Colson was named a fellow of the British Association of Social Anthropology and of the American Anthropological Association.  The latter paid a final tribute to Colson recently.

“Dr. Colson was a magnificent scholar, with a keen and critical mind,” the AAA said in a statement. “Dr. Colson served the anthropological community selflessly as a distinguished anthropologist, colleague, and mentor of younger scholars.”


  • The UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology will hold a memorial service for Colson from 4-6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 24, at the Alumni House on campus.
  • A UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology biography of Colson is online.
  • A remembrance of Colson is on the website of UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies.