David Hurst Thomas has served as curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History (New York) since 1972. For seven years, he was chairman of the Department of Anthropology. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, University of California (Davis), University of Florida, University of Nevada, the City College of New York, and lectured in more than 40 countries.
A specialist in Native American archaeology, he holds four degrees from the University of California, Davis (Ph.D., 1971) and a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) from the University of the South (conferred 1995). In 1970, he discovered Gatecliff Shelter (Nevada), the deepest archaeological rockshelter in the Americas. Since 1998, he has led excavations at Mission San Marcos, near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Thomas has conducted archaeological research on St. Catherines Island since 1974; he discovered and systematically excavated the 16th-/17th-century Franciscan Mission Santa Catalina de Guale. In recognition of this research, Thomas received the Franciscan Institute Medal in 1992; he is the only non-Franciscan ever to be so honored. Besides his work at the mission, Thomas has also focused on long-term subsistence and social change on St. Catherines Island, as well as population growth and increased social complexity at the island’s two Late Archaic shell ring sites. He continues to lead excavations on St. Catherines Island three times a year as part of the St. Catherines Island Archaeological Project.
Thomas has written 30 books, edited 90 additional volumes, and written more than 100 scientific papers. In 2000, he published the best-selling Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (Basic Books, 2000, 2001). A member of the Writer’s Guild of America, he wrote the first six chapters for the award-winning The Native Americans (Turner Publishing), the book accompanying the documentary The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths, produced by Turner Broadcasting. Thomas served as the U.S. editor for The Illustrated History of Humankind, a trailblazing five-volume set (Harper San Francisco). Publishers Weekly called the first volume of The Illustrated History “a stunning achievement and a book to treasure.” Thomas spearheaded the national marketing campaign for this series, including a coast-to-coast book tour in 1993.
Thomas is instigator, general editor, and contributor to the three-volume Columbian Consequences series (Smithsonian Institution Press); two of these volumes were selected as Outstanding Scholarly Books of the Year by Choice magazine. Other books include St. Catherines: An Island in Time (1988, revised 2011), Exploring Native America (2000), Exploring Ancient Native America (1994, 1999), Archaeology (six editions; two with R.L. Kelly), and Archaeology: Down to Earth (five editions, three with R.L. Kelly), Refiguring Anthropology: First Principles of Probability and Statistics (1986), Predicting the Past: An Introduction to Anthropological Archaeology (1974), and Gatecliff: Dwelling in the Desert (1974).
His scientific writings address a range of topics in prehistoric and historical archaeology. His most recent Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History have focused on St. Catherines Island; in 2008, he published a three-volume set called Native American Landscapes of St. Catherines Island, Georgia. Since then, he has edited and contributed to six additional peer-reviewed monographs about the science on St. Catherines.
In 1989, the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution appointed Thomas as a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, where he was unanimously elected as vice chairman of the board. That same year, Thomas was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He is also a fellow of the Academy of American Franciscan History.