June 18, 1948 ~ June 4, 2021
Born in: Canyon, Texas
Resided in: Bryan, Texas
Alston Vern Thoms died peacefully on June 4, 2021. Alston was farm boy from the Texas Panhandle who became an internationally respected archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University. He was a compassionate and loving son and older brother who pulled his weight on the farm and was always there to lean on when the family needed him. Alston is survived by his wife Patricia Clabaugh; sons John and Eugene and their mother Linda Lewis; sisters Barbara and Ann; granddaughter Zora; grandsons Shasha, John, and Dylan; one niece; and three nephews. He is also survived by a legion of friends, colleagues, collaborators, and students.
Alston was born in Canyon, Texas on June 18, 1948, to Walter Herman Thoms and Doris Katherine Thoms (nee Crumpacker). Much of his childhood was spent in White Deer, Texas, where his father farmed wheat and sorghum maize and raised Santa Gertrudis cattle. His mother taught third grade. They raised their four children to have empathy and understanding for other people, especially those who did not come from privileged backgrounds. Walter did not tolerate prejudice and spoke out against social injustice; Alston took up the torch at a young age and never put it down.
You could not spend time around Alston without learning—he challenged you to question assumption and think critically about the status quo. Alston was a force of nature, passionate about everything he set out to do. He will be remembered as a strong, kind, loving, and generous man whom you could always count on.
Alston Vern Thoms: A Life Well Lived.
Early in life, Alston felt a connection to the earth and those who came before, a connection he inherited from his parents Walter and Doris Thoms. Walter’s interest in the outdoors, people, and history opened Alston’s mind to a world of landscapes, environments, and cultures. Trekking across sections of land in the Texas Panhandle with Walter and his brother Byron turned up many archaeological discoveries. When they found arrowheads, they wondered how old they were and who made them. Those early finds made Alston protective of his Kiowa-Apache sister Ann because this was her homeland. Did those stone points belong to her people? These early encounters in archaeology led him to study history and anthropology at West Texas State University, where he earned his BA in 1970.
After graduating, Alston married Linda Lewis. The young couple joined the Peace Corps, and they served for three years in remote Poconé, Mato Grosso, Brazil. They worked through the mayor’s office there to help rural Brazilians improve their lives. Alston had the perfect background to help small landowners build corrals and vaccinate cattle through the Brazilian agricultural extension program. Working alongside these ranchers while riding on horseback through the Pantanal was life-changing for him. He looked back on his Peace Corps years as a foundational anthropological experience, living in a distant land amid people speaking Portuguese, getting to know these ordinary people with whom he shared a common bond.
Upon return to the Panhandle, Alston’s son John Thoms was born in 1974. Alston was starting what would be a long career in “contract archaeology” later known as Cultural Resource Management (CRM), directing research in advance of land transformation and impact (e.g., reservoirs, pipelines, and parking lots), owing to laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Alston entered the graduate program in anthropology at Texas Tech University, where he was part of a lively cohort of young archaeologists who had one foot in the lofty academic world and the other in the CRM trenches. While some still view these as worlds apart, Alston realized that modern American archaeology required both academic rigor and the hard-won data wrung from CRM dirt.
Son Eugene Thoms was born in 1979 in Oklahoma City, where Alston had taken on a new CRM position, “Cultural Resources Discipline Manager,” soon after completing his MA at Texas Tech. After several years of directing archaeological projects and conducting large river basin surveys in Southeastern US, Alston was accepted into the PhD program at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Washington. He continued working apace in CRM between semesters and came to love the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rocky Mountains.
Summer family vacations were always camping trips to the mountains near trout streams. Alston taught his sons to love and respect nature. As he saw it, he trained them up and let them loose under a watchful eye. John recalls the treasured hatchet his dad gave him at age seven. “He carefully taught me how to use it. I listened attentively; well enough to later recite the lesson to my children. We went camping that weekend and I soon ignored all the rules; I was only seven after all. The blade skipped off the log and into my ankle. Seven stitches to sew it up. Dad let me bite his finger while they gave me the shot to deaden the wound. I bit hard. He didn’t flinch. He was tough and always had a helping hand to lend.”
Eugene remembers trout fishing in the Northern Rockies. “As a young child, too small to fish the frigid streams with my father, I longed for the day I could join him. That day finally arrived one summer in the late 1980s, when I had the great fortune of fishing nearly every weekend with my father. Toward the end of the summer, I landed the largest rainbow trout we had ever seen pulled from that stream. She was double the size of the next largest on our stringer. It was an epic moment, and Dad let me decide whether to keep or release her. I chose to keep her and almost immediately realized it was the wrong decision, but he let me make it so I could learn to be a good steward. I’m not sure if he knew he was also teaching me what it is to be a great father, but I’ll never forget.”
In the 1980s Alston directed a series of major research projects in the Northern Rockies through the Center for Northwestern Archaeology at WSU. He saw lots of territory, dug lots of sites, and learned from specialists and Indian peoples. He became fascinated with the abundant but largely unrecognized evidence of intensive plant baking—huge areas covered by carbon-black sediment littered with scattered heaps of broken stones. He came to realize the fire-cracked rocks had once been cooking stones used as heating elements in the layered plant baking arrangements known as earth ovens. From eyewitness historical accounts and Native elders, Alston learned that Indian peoples in the Pacific Northwest routinely harvested and baked the roots of camas (wild hyacinth) since time immemorial. His ground-breaking 1989 dissertation The Northern Roots of Hunter-Gatherer Intensification: Camas and the Pacific Northwest established his authority. He later argued convincingly that this was part of a continental-wide cultural pattern he termed the “Carbohydrate Revolution.”
In 1990 Alston returned to Texas and began working for Texas A&M University (TAMU), hired as assistant director in the anthropology department’s Archaeological Research Laboratory and to direct the Applewhite Reservoir archaeological project on the Medina River, near San Antonio. He dispatched large crews to document and evaluate the many archaeological and historical sites that lay in harm’s way within the proposed reservoir. The biggest challenge was monitoring the construction of the massive dam footing trench: a football field’s width across the Medina River’s broad alluvial valley. This was true salvage archaeology, as the TAMU crews had only days to sample the Indian campsites exposed by huge earth-moving machines as the dam trench progressed deeper and deeper. An observant engineer named Richard Beene spotted what he thought might be deeply buried evidence and directed the earth moving equipment elsewhere so that Alston and his crew could have a chance to document what turned out to be layer after layer of short-term family campsites.
Ultimately the citizens of San Antonio voted down the completion of the reservoir but the archaeological work carried on. Alston continued to monitor and advise city, state, and federal authorities when future developments would have an impact. Under his watchful eye, he provided opportunities for students and members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation to work and help teach field schools. The Richard Beene site proves to be an extremely informative archaeological locale for anyone interested in the past—over 20 distinct cultural layers were sampled, documented, and dated in overbank (flood) deposits over 45 feet thick—one of only a handful of sites on the entire US Gulf Coastal Plain to yield a nearly complete record of human occupation spanning the last 10,000 years.
Texas A&M eventually abandoned its CRM program. Alston began teaching full time and continued his research, funded through grants and field schools instead of contracts. He went on to become director of the Center for Ecological Archaeology and a full professor. He taught a range of graduate and undergraduate courses, from Peoples and Cultures of the World to Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology to Indians of Texas to Cultural Resource Management and beyond. Alston taught from his brain and his heart. He led by example and those that got it persevered.
In 1993 Alston married Pat Clabaugh, a fellow camper, ecologist, archaeologist, and editor. They worked as a team on the Richard Beene site and many other archaeological projects and field schools from Texas to Montana. They found their homeplace on four wooded acres in the Post Oaks on the outskirts of Bryan, their sanctuary. Alston spent years working the land and was able to get many of the native grasses and plants established. As a farmer, he loved gardening and grew organic vegetables and fruits every season for family and friends. They were in their element, preparing delicious garden-to-table meals. Occasionally deer if John or Eugene hunted that year. Even Alston’s constant battle in the garden with the resident gophers, squirrels, and birds had a purpose. Most years he invited his students to come over to the house to learn how to build and cook in an earth oven. He always had plenty of gophers and squirrels in the freezer to add to food bundles.
Alston and Pat were close to their parents. Walter and Doris, who left the Panhandle and moved to Taylor, Texas, continued to raise cattle and Walter resumed racing pigeons near Thrall, Texas, at what became known as the family “Cow Camp.” Alston was always on hand to help Walter move cattle, fix fence, tag ears, or just visit. Over the years they also looked after Pat’s mother Josefina. Alston admired her strength and respected her fierce independence. They bonded over her Filipino-Chinese heritage and foodways, his favorite dishes were chicken adobo, fried rice, pancit, and egg rolls.
Following Walter’s death in 2016 Alston, Pat, and sons took over the Cow Camp, where they still raise a small herd of cattle and some chickens. In the winter of 2018, Alston and John were in the corral working the cattle one by one through the squeeze chute so they could spray for ticks and add a numbered ear tag to each calf. Eugene, whom Alston had teased for carrying a 9mm pistol, was stationed outside the chute when John left the corral to get more feed cubes. The ill-tempered bull #43 saw an opportunity and charged at Alston, knocking him to the ground, picking him up and tossing him in the air, and eventually pinning him against the chute. Eugene saw the bull back up and lower his head to charge again, so he pulled out his pistol and shot the charging beast dead, likely saving his father’s life. Alston looked up, dazed and bloody. “Damn, Eugene, you just killed a $3,000 bull.” Alston staggered over to the picnic table and sat down. He told everyone that he was okay as he mopped the blood off his head. Not so. Pat raced him to the local hospital and then followed the ambulance to Round Rock, where he spent two nights in ICU with a broken neck. His torn muscles and cracked ribs kept him from working cattle and teaching classes for a while, during which time they savored every bite of #43, medium-rare.
Alston returned to teaching to share his knowledge and encourage square-headed students to open their minds to new perspectives. He particularly relished opportunities to take students into the field for experiential learning—learning by doing—especially hot rock cooking. His Montana field school students were afforded the opportunity to dig camas and other root foods alongside tribal elders and then build the ovens to cook them in. For several years his TAMU students challenged students from the Experimental Archaeology Club at Texas State University in Hot Rock Cookoffs that rotated between College Station and San Marcos. His son Eugene often enjoyed watching his father teach and interact with the students.
“My favorite occasion was only a few years ago when he invited his graduate students to our family land to cook food in earth ovens, meet his sons, and generally have a good time outdoors. My brother and I, having built earth ovens since childhood, were tasked with showing the young people how it is done. At his direction and in consideration of the wonderful variety of his guests, we built two ovens: one for meat and one for vegetables. While we waited for our meal to cook, we lounged in the shade, listened to his stories, and tried our hand at atlatl spear throwing. When we at last peeled our roasted feast from the steaming ground, I caught his eye, and he was so proud of all of us.”
Alston’s graduate students and professional colleagues cherish the time spent with him whether in the field, at a meeting, or in a classroom. From decades of fieldwork and countless hours spent studying, documenting, and sampling stratigraphic profiles (trench walls), Alston “knew dirt” like few others. As one friend recalls, “I’ll never forget the time he visited our excavations . . . in just a few hours he traced the subtle patterns in the profiles and linked these to the [cooked stone] features we had spent weeks exposing and staring at in bewilderment. That day was the ‘Eureka’ moment! With his insightful guidance, we soon had a testable model explaining how human behaviors and centuries of natural deposition might have created the commingled evidence at hand. He proved to be right.”
Throughout his career, Professor Thoms respected and learned from Native peoples. Over the last four decades, he befriended San Antonio citizens of Indian heritage whose ancestors had lived in the missions established by the Spanish in the early 1700s. He came to share their frustration when, time and time again, their heritage was denied and their views were dismissed. In the course of ongoing research, Alston, his graduate students, and many of his colleagues consulted and worked with the members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation and the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions. And bit by bit, they assembled birth records and other historical documents, oral histories, archaeological evidence, and finally, genetic evidence to prove the case. Direct lineal descendants of the Indian peoples who lived in San Antonio’s Spanish Missions are still with us today and they deserve our respect. The title of a forthcoming scholarly publication is telling: Toward Resisting Extinction and Empowering Survival: aDNA to DNA Studies, Pre-Hispanic and Mission Indians in South-Central North America.