Born in Van Horn, Tex., Wheat was interested in archaeology and Indian artifacts from childhood. By his early teens, he was the local authority who guided pioneer archaeologists such as E. B. Sayles and Frank Setzler to important sites in the area. Wheat studied at Sul Ross Teachers College and Texas Tech University, where he met William Curry Holden, who suggested that he transfer to the University of California, Berkeley. There, Wheat studied under A. L. Kroeber, receiving his B.A. in 1937. He earned both his M.A. (1949) and Ph.D. (1953) at the University of Arizona where he studied with Emil Haury and Edward Spicer. Following four years in the U.S. Army Air Force (1941-1945) and graduate school, Wheat became the first curator of anthropology and assistant professor of natural history at the University of Colorado Museum. He worked at the museum until his official retirement in 1986, after which he continued to do archaeological work in southern Colorado.
Wheat's archaeology included work on the Smithsonian Institution's River Basin Surveys in 1947 and the University of Arizona's Field School at Point of Pines (1947-1948). His doctoral dissertation on ancient Mogollon culture was published in two parts as a memoir of the American Anthropological Association and a memoir of the Society for American Archaeology and as a monograph by the University of Arizona. His Paleoindian research at the Olsen-Chubbock site (published as a memoir of the Society for American Archaeology) and the Jurgens site (a Plains Anthropologist memoir) are landmarks of scientific excellence. In 1954 Wheat began summer field school excavations at Yellow Jacket, a site in southwestern Colorado. The work provided an Anasazi parallel to his Mogollon research and trained generations of archaeology students. In the 1960s Wheat excavated sites in the Sudan and Tunisia as part of a University of Colorado expedition. Since 1972 Wheat had devoted research time to textiles from the American Southwest. This work resulted in exhibitions throughout the United States and accompanying publications.
Wheat served as secretary (1960-1964) and was elected president (1966-1967) of SAA and honored with the SAA 50th Anniversary Award. He received the Colorado State Archaeologist's Award (1979), the Robert L. Stearns Award (1982), the Clarence T. Hurst Award (1990), and the Byron S. Cummings Award (1991).
Wheat was married to Frances Irene (Pat) Moore from 1947 until her death in 1987. In 1992 he married Barbara Kile Zernickow whom he had first met in the 1940s and with whom he shared many interests. Wheat's biography and bibliography were compiled by Ann Hedlund and published in Why Museums Collect, Papers in Honor of Joe Ben Wheat (Archaeological Society of New Mexico, Vol. 19, 1993).
Linda Cordell is at the University Museum and Frank W. Eddy is in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Colorado-Boulder.