Rein­vent­ing the diet wheel

A mod­ern-day Flint­stone ex­ca­vates pre­his­tory to teach us to eat like hu­mans again

Sunday Times - - Insight Anthropology - By GIL­LIAN AN­STEY

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

Picture: Alon Skuy

Bill Schindler at The Ori­gins Cen­tre in Jo­han­nes­burg. He is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy and ar­chae­ol­ogy at Wash­ing­ton Col­lege.

Picture: Na­tional Geo­graphic Stu­dios. Alon Skuy

Bill Schindler and co-star Cat Bigney sharpen their spears be­fore a hunt in an Ethiopian game park dur­ing an episode of ‘The Great Hu­man Race’ on the Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel. Right, Bill’s neck­lace made from an as­sort­ment of items col­lected from his ad­ven­tures

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