“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.