Reinventing the diet wheel
A modern-day Flintstone excavates prehistory to teach us to eat like humans again
Bill Schindler is not just a buff, gung-ho daredevil. Sure, he has pranced around for days in desolate environments wearing animal skins and doing whatever it takes to survive, whether it be spearing a scorpion for supper, darting a wild boar with a Stone Age spear called an atlatl, or building a reed boat to navigate the sea.
In some ways it’s all in a day’s work for Schindler, who co-starred with survival expert Cat Bigney in the TV series The Great Human Race. Back home, in Maryland in the US, he is an associate professor of anthropology at Washington College, and has made a name for himself by teaching hands-on classes that recreate our ancestral past.
No wonder the National Geographic Channel contacted him, desperate for his expertise and charisma to feature in its series, which aimed to portray people’s lives from 2.5 million to 4 000 years ago.
Schindler was in Johannesburg recently to represent the international archaeological organisation EXARC, which he heads, at the first African Conference on Experimental Archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand. He won over delegates from around the world with his charm and enthusiasm. But more engaging even than his smile was his necklace. No humdrum piece of jewellery, each part of it told a story of his antics and know-how.
Back in 2002 as a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, he led a student archaeology field trip on an island in the Delaware River. After about two weeks, one student piped up: “I can make a drill with stone and drill through wood and bone, but how do you drill through stone?”
Schindler strolled to the beach, found a pebble of chert, a kind of flint, and took a piece of quartz to make a tool with which he drilled a hole in the pebble in 20 minutes. That pebble is the pendant of his necklace.
“Then I started putting things on that were important to me,” said Schindler. So after butchering and cooking seals with Inuits in Greenland, pieces of the long seal bones became the links. Two discs are from bones of the first deer his son, Billy, now 12, shot two years ago. Glass beads are from a workshop he did with students replicating Viking beads in a furnace and the copper he smelted during a course in the UK. The rest of the necklace is from The Great Human Race shoots: baobab seeds from fruit which he ate in Tanzania, and the last bead on each side is made from the femurs of cane rats he ate in Uganda. The thong is tanned deerskin, which was cured with the animal’s brain fat to transform the skin into leather and then softened by being smoked over a fire.
It is a uniquely Schindler creation with the only downside being that in its early years when he sweated, it stank of the fish the seals had eaten.
Such adventures are now part of his life, but Schindler’s academic career was not a foregone conclusion. At Ohio State University — where he initially focused on wrestling — his studies deteriorated because, unbeknown to him he had a degenerative eye disease, keratoconus, in which the cornea becomes cone-shaped. Then he tore the ligaments in a knee and couldn’t wrestle. He went to work on a pig farm for a year.
In a speech at Washington College four years ago when he won the alumni award for distinguished teaching, Schindler said: “My world was crashing down. I was going blind and I was out for the season. I failed every class. In May of 1994 I was thrown out of school. The school informed me I was allowed to return after one year if I chose.”
Luckily his problem was diagnosed, he had two cornea transplants and later further laser treatment. But it did take him 10 years to graduate with his first degree.
“Everyone is blind in some way and for me it was real blindness.
“Our job as professors is to provide our students with the opportunity to see the world in new and unique ways. If we are passionate about what we do, and provide the proper context in whatever way we choose, we have the power to provide our students with the opportunity to see the world through our eyes, to enhance their learning and make real change,” he said. “Now I truly love and live what I teach.”
The focus of his new learning and teaching passion is food, more precisely “integrating ancestral approaches to food and diet into modern life”. He is writing a book about it and it is the focus of the Eastern Shore Food Lab, which opens at Washington College on his return in August, and of which he is director.
Both represent the next step in Schindler’s and anthropology’s evolution: recreating the past and using its lessons to improve our modern life.
The Eastern Shore Food Lab is a classroom and laboratory “to find, identify and document as many ancestral dietary practices as possible around the world and throughout prehistory. And most importantly, to find ways to make them relevant”, said Schindler.
“It’s not about stepping back in time. Our tagline is: it’s not eating like cavemen, it’s about learning to eat like humans again.
“Anthropology now has this kind of subfield called applied anthropology where, instead of just going and finding some remote tribe in Africa to study, you take these skills and say: ‘How can the work I do improve the life of the people I’m studying, whether it be in an inner city or somewhere in the remote areas of Africa or Australia.’
“Our skill sets are unique in the way we look at the world and the past. We can make real change beyond just understanding how this hominid fossil or how this stone tool was made. What can we do to impact the modern life of everybody? Sometimes we can, and food is one of those ways. We’re taking an experimental approach to learning about the past and want to produce foods that are nutrient-dense, sustainable or regenerative and meet or exceed the expectations of the modern palate.”
Schindler is learning more about this on a year-long sabbatical he is finishing at the Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture at University College Dublin.
The centre is run by Professor Aidan O’Sullivan and Schindler is also working closely with archaeologist-turned-food innovator Jason O’Brien, who runs a food company that aims to reconnect people with the origins of food, like producing bread baked with ancient grains and using techniques of thousands of years ago.
O’Brien has helped put him into contact with Michelin chef Kevin Thornton, whose restaurant was the only one in Ireland to have featured in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Schindler and Thornton go on regular foraging adventures to show people how to find edible foods growing in the wild.
Right now, though, Schindler, his wife, Christina, and their three children, Brianna, Billy and Alyssa, are on a culinary tour of Kenya, learning about the dietary habits of the Samburu, who drink fresh cow blood mixed with milk, and of the Kalenjin people in West Potok in the Rift Valley who make an ash yoghurt known as mursik — food for thought as humans confront our survival.
What can we do to impact modern life? Food is one of those Bill Schindler