Dr. Elizabeth Weiss and the Ryan Mound Skeletal Collection

Written by Sarah Souksamphanh

Dr. Weiss with her book
Dr. Elizabeth Weiss and her fifth  book: “Paleopathology in Perspective: Bone Health and Disease through Time.”

Dr. Elizabeth Weiss is a full professor in the Anthropology Department who teaches physical anthropology courses. Her research expertise is in skeletal analyses of past populations. In fact, one of the things that drew her to SJSU is the Ryan Mound skeletal collection that contains 287 individuals, which are most likely associated with the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. Additionally, SJSU also has a small collection of two to three dozen skeletal remains of individuals from Carthage, Tunisia. According to Dr. Weiss, the Ryan Mound collection “is probably one of the largest and best preserved prehistoric skeletal collections in the world.” The collection dates from 2,500 years ago to 250 years ago with skeletons from infants, children, and adults.

The bones of these individuals tell the story of how they lived. The purpose of having the Ryan Mound collection is to study the bones of the individuals to understand how they lived culturally, what type of lifestyle they lived, and how it affected their health. Dr. Weiss specializes in osteology and she studies bones to understand and bridge common current health issues with the health problems of past populations.  For example, she has examined the symptoms of osteoarthritis, which is the most common bone disease now and in the past, using a living sample database from the NIH Osteoarthritis Initiative to help determine the level of pain the Ryan Mound people with osteoarthritis would have experienced. In discussing her passion for studying past populations, Dr. Weiss said that she feels fortunate to have been able to spend nearly twenty years studying the remains of “these incredible individuals, telling their stories with not their words, but with their bones.” Dr. Weiss brought out some of these remarkable individuals; for instance, one of the skeletons (Burial #92) has been made into a cast to teach about birth defects, such as cleft palates. Dr. Weiss also adds that it would be fascinating to have someone create reconstructions of these individuals, such as they do in forensic anthropology, to capture their life and culture by humanizing them.


Ryan Mound Skull

Skull of a 20 to 24 year old female with a cleft palate (Burial #92)


Recently, Dr. Weiss has completed writing her fifth book, “Paleopathology in Perspective: Bone Health and Disease through Time” and it bridges the medical field with bio-archaeology, which is the study of skeletal remains in the archaeological record. The book looks at health in the broader perspective by digging into the past and present. Currently, one of her plans is to enhance the collection’s curation, which includes re-packaging the individuals and updating the computer database, to help future researchers continue learning about the Ryan Mound people.




Ryan Mound Bones
A humerus from an adult male
(Burial # 177) with osteomyelitis,
which is a systemic bone infection
that may have resulted in his death.

For further information about Dr. Weiss, check out her Google Scholar Page.

For further information about SJSU’s relationship with the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, click here.