Volney H. Jones (1903–1982) was born on April 30, 1903, in Comanche, Texas. He earned an Associate in Science certificate from North Texas Agricultural College, then transferred to Texas A&M University. There, he worked for Robert G. Reeves, a geneticist and specialist in corn, and graduated with a B.A. in agriculture. He next assisted Edward S. Castetter in the ethnobiology program at the University of New Mexico, and earned a M.A. in biology. In 1933, Jones married Joyce Hedrick, and they had one son, Alan. On December 12, 1982, Jones died in Ann Arbor.
After receiving his M.A. in 1931, Jones came to the University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, where he worked with Melvin Gilmore—first as assistant, and then as successor—in developing the Ethnobotanical Laboratory. He remained at Michigan, as Curator of Ethnology in the Museum of Anthropology, and professor in the Department of Anthropology, until his retirement in 1969.
Although his work in archaeobotany was often unheralded at the time, Jones was an innovator and pioneer in the field, developing new techniques for identifying and analyzing ethnological and archaeological plant specimens. He wrote over 350 specimen reports that integrated anthropological interpretation with knowledge of Native American ethnobotany; his analyses were frequently cited in field reports and publications. The Ethnobotanical Laboratory that Jones developed with Gilmore grew into the largest ethnobotanical collection in North America, and today remains unique for its extensive collection of archaeological and systematic comparative wood, seeds, and plant parts from around the world, and for its ethnographic examples of how traditional cultures collect, store, process, and use these plants. In 1954, Jones began creating a “Compendium of Data on Economic Botany of the Southwest,” a taxonomic list of economic plants from the Southwest that were systemized by punch cards. This system allowed data to be cross-indexed by native tribe and category of use. In 2004, Richard I. Ford, then Director of the Ethnobotany Laboratory, digitized the data, creating the “Southwest Traditional Ethnic Group Plant Use Database.”
Jones’ numerous contributions to Native American ethnobotany spanned his career—from his master’s thesis, a study of Isleta Pueblo, to comparative studies completed after his retirement and published in the Handbook of North American Indians (Smithsonian Institute). His archaeobotany studies were the foundation for continuing research by others, including former students Richard Yarnell, Vorsila Bohrer, and Richard Ford. Jones served on state commissions related to Native Americans in Michigan, and was active in the Michigan Academy of Science. In 1978, University colleagues and former students honored Jones with the festscrift The Nature and Status of Ethnobotany (University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology).