Thu, Apr-13-17, 07:10
Meet the Schindlers. They’re the modern Stone Age family
From The Times
12 April, 2017
Meet the Schindlers. They’re the modern Stone Age family
We need to relearn how to be human, says the anthropologist Professor Caveman
A few years ago Bill Schindler, an American professor of anthropology who teaches college students how to live like early humans, asked his class to crack some eggs and separate the yolks from the whites in preparation for a lesson. He left to attend to another group of students and returned ten minutes later to find nothing had been done. Not one egg was broken. He asked why and was met with silence. Finally one admitted: “No one has ever shown us how to crack an egg.”
Professor Schindler was aghast that people could reach early adulthood without having performed such a basic task. Yet that small incident validated a truth that underpins his classes: people have become disconnected from their food and from the fundamental skills that made human beings such a successful species. He says that fewer people today have mastered basic survival skills than at any other time in history. His popular Experimental Archaeology and Primitive Technology courses at Washington College, in Maryland, teach the artistries and abilities that have been lost to us down the decades as our dependency on expensive technology has grown.
His classes are not for the fainthearted. Students learn ancient technologies, how to make flint tools from scratch, make fires, fashion rope from plant fibres, and some have butchered deer using the tools they made to extract the nutrient-rich organs. What he wants to do is “peel back the veil” and teach his students how to interact with the environment again in an age when people pull heavily packaged convenience food off supermarket shelves without knowing how it was made (a recent UK study found that a fifth of children don’t know that bacon comes from a pig or that carrots grow underground).
Schindler wants people to learn how to be involved in their food and survival from beginning to end, using sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste. Essentially it’s learning how to be “human” again.
I ask Schindler, who has been dubbed “Professor Caveman”, whether he is surprised at the hunger for learning these skills. He is not; what surprises him is the amount of “disconnect” we have from our human past. “I truly believe everything is hidden from us on so many different levels,” he says. “From our food system to everything we use to survive; someone else takes care of it, or at least parts of it. There is a human need to connect, and I think this is where it’s coming from.”
Some people, he says, call this “visceral insulation”, and the disconnect is the result of us not seeing the consequences of our actions. “Other people are raising animals, other people are killing and butchering [those] animals and we don’t see them. We just see the package in the grocery store,” he says. We don’t, in short, take responsibility for the choices we make.
He certainly practises what he preaches. He follows a mainly paleo diet, hunts for the family’s meat, makes his own bread (he’s passionate about bread) in a wood-fired oven in his backyard, and his children, aged 13, 11 and 9, fish and have learnt to forage for fruit and greens. His 11-year-old son recently killed and butchered his first buck, and Schindler has just built a “cheese cave” in his basement.
He doesn’t want to suggest that they aren’t a modern family with computers and who play sport, because they are. They live in a suburban house, and his wife, Christina, works in educational technology, but they have house rules. “The meat we eat we have either killed and butchered it [ourselves], or we know the person who has killed and butchered the animal. That’s really important on a lot of levels,” he says. Every bit of the animal is used.
“I truly believe that if you are going to take an animal’s life at any level it needs to be meaningful. Things die every day for us to eat, whether it’s a plant or an animal, and in my mind if I was part of the process from the very beginning — making my own bow, doing it right, killing an animal with respect and using literally every part of that animal, from food, to bones to make tools, to skin to make leather — that is the most ethical and meaningful way to go about doing it.” He believes that anyone who is going to eat meat should have to “kill and butcher an animal at least once”.
As a vegetarian of more than 30 years’ standing I don’t disagree, but I wonder if he thinks that too much meat is eaten now. “I think people eat way too much meat from three different animals and just a few cuts of that meat,” he says. While meat is more nutrient-dense than fruit or veg, it is the least nutrient-dense part of an animal, he says. “Organs, fat, blood and connective tissue — those are the parts that our ancestors relied upon. They are what makes us human and what the average middle-class westerner does not have in their diet.
“From a sustainability, ethical and dietary perspective one of the things we need to address is the way we eat animals. You should get an animal, start on one end, eat all the way through to the other end and only then think about getting another animal.”
During a speech to the college he ripped off his robes to reveal that he was wearing a loincloth he had made. It is worth reflecting in this consumer age that it cost four deer to make that one garment. He dislikes the term “caveman” as “it immediately disregards 3.4 million years of human diversity and innovation, has a negative and brutish connotation, and doesn’t include women!” he says.
Schindler’s face is well-known to American television viewers because of his role in The Great Human Race, a US survival documentary broadcast last year, in which he re-enacted ancient living. Ever since he was a child growing up in New Jersey he felt a yearning to connect with the way prehistoric people lived. “Years ago, when I was a kid, I had these two things: I loved being in the kitchen and I loved learning about the past and connecting with the past.” He would go hunting with his father and spend hours outside learning how to make stone tools, bows and arrow heads. “I needed to do this, I wanted this connection with my food; it was wanting to be a part of it from beginning to end.”
When he started his own family he didn’t want anything on the table that he hadn’t made entirely himself: butter, bread, bone broth, cheese. At the last Thanksgiving he admits that his wife had to remind him that he was in suburbia and not the wilds when he began butchering animals in the garden. “We had some friends over and it was their first time hunting. We shot a bunch of geese and a deer and all that butchering was happening as one woman was tanning a deerskin and there was stuff everywhere. It was a lot,” he says. Are the neighbours understanding? “They know what to expect,” he says, diplomatically.
What is the point, though, of killing animals using primitive tools? Over time we have developed more sophisticated methods that surely do the job more quickly and humanely. What does it prove to use the old ones? Isn’t it unnecessarily brutal? “That’s a great question,” he says. It depends, evidently, on your level of skill. “If everything else was equal, for example a really skilled hunter with a gun and a really skilled hunter with a replica of a 5,000-year-old bow with a stone tip, then we can have the argument. I have killed animals with a stone tip and they have died instantly; it’s been very peaceful.” However, a person walking to the store and buying a gun they’re using for the first time would probably perform a less clean kill.
Even so, it’s not as if it is going to reverse how we live now, is it? “I don’t think I’m going to take an entire generation and turn them into a bunch of hunter-gatherers,” he says, “and that’s not what I’m trying to do. It’s not practical.” What he does think is attainable is teaching people to make different decisions about their food by feeling more part of the process.
“What’s super-important and why I’ve decided to teach this and live my life like this is that it’s not about learning to live like a caveman, it is learning how to be human again. If we can get a firm grasp, a visceral understanding of what it was like in the past, then find ways to apply that in the right way to our modern lives, that’s where the real power comes in. I think we can take a lot of lessons from the past to inform how we move forward in the future.”
Schindler explains that for 99 per cent of the time that humans have roamed the planet we have lived as hunter-gatherers, but the way we feed ourselves now is far removed from that. Even limited amounts of foraging, fishing, hunting, crabbing or clamming, plus starting fires and cooking on them, “allow us to see our place in the world through new eyes, empower us to take real control over our diets and transform our relationship with ourselves, our food and our environment”.
Besides, the way we live isn’t working out so well. Schindler believes that “biologically humans are the weakest species on the planet”. If you stripped us of all our technologies, he says, we would die in almost every environment. We developed technologies to overcome the limitations of our bodies, but in becoming more and more reliant on those technologies we have domesticated ourselves. “I believe we are the first species to self-domesticate,” he says. “Here we are today with these huge brains, really inefficient teeth and nails and guts, yet we still have to fuel a pretty large body. If we don’t understand that we need to do this properly we are going to be sick. And guess what — we are probably one of the sickest species on the planet as well.”
We have passed this on to our pets, he says, feeding them similar diets to our own. “The same modern diseases that we’re suffering from — obesity, cancer, diabetes — we are giving it to our pets. But the saving grace is that it is reversible.”
If we take the uncracked eggs as a metaphor for our insulated, hands-off approach to food-gathering, it raises the question of whether in some ways we are going backwards. However, Schindler doesn’t want to be overly critical of those students and emphasises that this is not a bashing of a particular age. “It’s an issue of the modern western world,” he says. “That particular example stood out in my mind because all of them had never cracked an egg and we had just spent the week before talking about chicken houses.”
Another time, at a conference, he ended the evening with his students sitting round an open fire. It turned out many of them had never been that close to a real fire. “It blew my mind,” he says. “It’s not just students, it’s adults too.”
Schindler is collaborating with University College Dublin’s Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture to investigate food and culture in the past. He is also working with the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria. Next year Washington College will launch the Eastern Shore Food Lab. This project will teach people skills such as butchering, foraging and fermentation with the maxim, “Informed by the past, inspired by the future”. Its research will focus on the fusion of ancient technologies with modern culinary techniques and celebrate “meaningful food production”. Schindler will teach skills such as “high-yield butchering and cooking”, “nixtamalisation” and “celebration of terroir”.
His ultimate mission is to teach people to take lessons from the past and apply them to the present to lead healthier, more responsible lives. He wants, in short, for us to take control and “begin to eat like humans again”.