Professor Caveman

Why Bill Schindler is teaching college students to live like early humans

John Cuneo

“That’s my blood, not the deer’s,” said Eden Kloetzli, a senior at Washington College, in Maryland, as she gazed at the red liquid staining her palm. She and about a dozen other students were busy slicing and dicing four deer carcasses laid outside the school’s new archaeology laboratory. Making the task harder, the novice butchers were using tools that they had knapped themselves out of obsidian, basalt, and flint.

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Their anthropology professor, Bill Schindler—who somehow looked ruggedly handsome despite the fact that he hadn’t shaved in days and was wearing an odd necklace made of seal bone, African baobab seeds, and beads cast from copper he had smelted himself—grinned. “With a simple flake that you can create in a second,” he said proudly, “you have transformed that deer into food for you, rather than just something to look at while you starve.” This is high praise, coming from Schindler, who says that fewer people have mastered basic survival skills today than at any other time in human history. Over the course of this semester-long class, Experimental Archaeology and Primitive Technology, Schindler’s students learn to build fires with wooden hand drills, make rope from plant fibers, and gather tree nuts, among other things. Although most of us no longer rely on these skills, Schindler argues that they are essential to understanding what it means to be human, and should be a part of our educational curricula.

“I didn’t expect to be so cool with it,” said Amy Peterson, who was taking a break from the butchering. “I thought I would be like, ‘This was a live animal,’ ” she added. “Schindler makes it look easy,” said Shannon Lawn, a former vegetarian who had spent the first hour of class trying not to look at the head of the deer she was butchering; as she spoke, she was struggling to position a silver-dollar-size obsidian blade into the soft connective tissue just under its hide.

Before the first crude blades were employed in East Africa some 3.4 million years ago, Schindler likes to remind his students, our hominid forebears had no way to slash through tough animal hide to get at the nutrient-dense meat and organs beneath. The development of stone tools (together with the control of fire, which Schindler believes occurred 2 million years ago) initiated a nutritional revolution. In part because of all the fat- and protein-rich food that was suddenly available, our ancestors’ brain and body size increased rapidly, culminating in the emergence of anatomically modern humans in the Middle Paleolithic period, some 200,000 years ago.

The skills prehistoric peoples depended on seem exotic to today’s college students, who Schindler says arrive on campus each year with less and less of the sort of practical experience that he emphasizes in his class. He tells of the time he asked some students to crack eggs and separate the yolks from the whites. He returned to the kitchen 10 minutes later to find that not a single egg had been cracked. “I asked them if the problem was that nobody had ever told them how to separate the yolk from the whites, and received blank stares in return,” he recalled. “After a minute of silence, one of them said, ‘I’ve never cracked an egg.’ I was floored—how do you even make it to 19 without cracking an egg?”

When he was a college student, in the 1990s, Schindler suffered from an almost comic degree of misdirection. He changed majors seven times and flunked out of school (due largely to a since-corrected eye problem that made him legally blind), then worked on a pig farm for a year. Deciding that animal husbandry was not for him, he re-enrolled in college, taking 10 years in all to complete his undergraduate degree. One day, Schindler noticed a manuscript about the evolution of hunting on a history professor’s desk and asked incredulously whether studying this was part of his job. The exchange blew Schindler’s mind. He had always been obsessed with hunting, food, and primitive tools—as a kid, he told me, he’d liked “banging on rocks and trying to start fires”—but it had not occurred to him that he could build a career around such things.

Schindler went on to get a doctorate in anthropology, then took up teaching; today, he is the chair of Washington College’s anthropology department and a leader in the growing field of “experimental archaeology,” which involves reproducing and using ancient technologies to gather data and draw inferences about life in the past. He takes particular pleasure in using these technologies to push his students outside their comfort zone. Once, while delivering a commencement address, he stripped off his cap and gown and stepped away from the lectern wearing a homemade buckskin shirt and loincloth, to laughter and applause.

Beyond academia, Schindler may be the most widely recognizable archaeologist today, thanks to his role on The Great Human Race, a survival-genre TV show broadcast last year on the National Geographic Channel. Over the course of 10 ordeal-filled episodes, he and his co-host, Cat Bigney, a desert-survival expert, attempted to reenact the prehistory of humankind by creating their own tools and using them to make a go of it in some of the world’s toughest ecosystems.

Although Schindler had been reproducing ancient technologies for many years, these trying conditions revealed crucial new details about primitive life—such as how long it takes stone blades to blunt and need replacement, and how deerskin clothing performs when soaked. He and Bigney faced down a pack of hyenas on the African savanna, tried (unsuccessfully) to build a fire from scratch on a bone-chilling day in the Caucasus, and climbed an Alaskan glacier wearing boots they had sewn by hand. It was no picnic; on the contrary, they frequently went hungry. In Alaska, Schindler suffered frostbite, and in Tanzania, he contracted a severe infection from bat feces in the baobab tree he had been sleeping in.

Despite these near misses, Schindler bristles at the notion that ancient people struggled to survive; the archaeological record shows otherwise, he says. Early humans did not rough it alone, as he and Bigney did. They traveled within larger migratory groups, and possessed an intricate knowledge of the local environment and seasonal changes. They knew “where to be and when to be there,” Schindler says. “In terms of diet, bone strength, lack of disease, we were actually doing much better in the past than we are now.” (In fact, life expectancy was shorter in the past, but this was largely due to high infant-mortality rates. The fossil record does show that our ancestors had healthier teeth, probably thanks to their diet, and cancer and some other diseases may have been rarer.)

Schindler tries to provide a wholesome, early-human diet for his wife, Christina, and their three children. The family forages for wild fruits and greens, and fishes and hunts for much of its protein. Billy, age 11, just killed and butchered his first buck. (In addition to eating deer meat, the Schindlers sometimes tan their own deer hides. Schindler made a point of telling me that the shirt and loincloth he wore for his graduation speech cost four deer their lives.) They also brew beer, and bake bread in an outdoor oven, for which they split the wood. Christina (who works in educational technology) does have limits, however—she recently reprimanded her husband for breaching suburban etiquette by butchering a dead deer and some geese in the yard. “She grounds me in the realities of modern life,” Schindler says. “If there is a glitch with my computer, I break down. I mean I literally mentally cannot handle it. Christina saves me.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French ethnologist, famously claimed that civilization has been in decline since the Neolithic period. Schindler sounds a similar note. Most of us equate technological development with progress. Archaeologists, however, judge technologies not by their novelty, but by their impact on all aspects of life. By that criteria, recent technological advances may ultimately prove a failure. They not only are devastating our climate and environment, Schindler says; they have given us weapons that could destroy the world as we know it. “Homo erectus was around for almost 2 million years,” he adds. “We’ve been here for 200,000 years. There is no way we are going to be around for 2 million years unless we radically change our behavior.”

Schindler is keen to correct the popular conception of our ancestors as ignorant cavemen. People today have “thoroughly domesticated themselves,” he told me. Early humans, by contrast, had to be much more inventive, adept at problem-solving, and subtly attuned to changes in the natural environment. Their need to cooperate made them socially connected, as people nowadays are desperate to be (“Think Facebook,” he says). Early humans may even have been smarter than us: Cro-Magnons had larger brains than we do today. (Some scientists believe our ancestors needed extra brainpower to negotiate tough environmental challenges. Others connect the decline to an overall decrease in body mass since the end of the last ice age.)

Above and beyond its applications to his scholarly work, Schindler says that his mastery of early-human technologies has given him a sense of personal competence. He believes that our overdependence on technologies we don’t fully understand and are incapable of creating is disempowering. “The true value of all this is not trying to live a prehistoric life,” he told me. “It’s applying what we learn from the past to address contemporary problems.” For example: how to be healthy and happy. Ancient peoples faced dangers, he points out, but little routine emotional stress, and few of the chronic illnesses that arise from poor diet and lack of physical activity. They can also teach us a lot about how to interact with the natural world, he says. “In the past, when people killed too many animals or overharvested plants, they saw the impact on the world,” Schindler told me. But today, living apart from nature, we do not see the results of our food and energy choices.

On the last day of the course, Schindler and his class feasted on stew made from the deer they had butchered, out of bowls they had fired from local river clay. As they ate, some of the students gave presentations about their efforts to do as early humans had done. These attempts had not all been successful: Stone axes fell off the handles they were hafted to, wood in a charcoal kiln turned mostly to ash instead of charcoal. “It wasn’t a failure at all,” Schindler reassured the distressed charcoal maker, “because now you know what you would do differently.”

Not everyone looked convinced. “In order to survive, you need to be a real master,” one student said. “We don’t give our ancestors enough credit.”