This Professor Teaches Students How To Live The Prehistoric Life

Mar 29, 2017
Originally published on March 29, 2017 3:28 pm

Washington College anthropology professor Bill Schindler (@drbillschindler) wants his students to experience what life was like in prehistoric times. So he tasks the students with making their own tools, butchering their own meat and gathering nuts for sustenance.

And he’s lived the life himself. Last year, Schindler took part in the National Geographic show “The Great Human Race.”

Schindler joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about his work.


Interview Highlights

On how his approach compares to survivalism

“Actually, it’s a step further. We love to use that world ‘survival,’ the TV genre right now is built on that word. I think it’s more about subsistence. That’s really the story and legacy of our human past. It’s about connection. It’s not just about getting through the next day and being able to live and wake up the next morning. It’s about doing really well.”

On why his work is necessary now

“One of the main reasons is, all of the technologies are the basis of the story of our shared ancestral past. It is uniquely human. By connecting these students with those technologies, we give them a context through which to view the world in an entirely different way. And also, a way that they can view their place in the world.”

On the activities he does with students

“Let’s take it from the story of a class that I taught several years ago where I did need students — we were cooking this huge seven-course meal from scratch for an event for the college. This one particular group of students, none of them had ever cracked an egg before. This one scenario was very powerful, because in this class the week prior, we had been talking about chicken farming issues on the eastern shore. If we’re gonna to talk about chicken farming — it may sound odd, but I truly believe this — if we’re going to talk about chicken farming, then students should have cracked eggs, butchered chickens and cooked chickens. If we’re talking about housing development, they probably should know how to swing hammer and pound a nail. These are some of the basic skills that I think we really need to make sure that we instill in our students in some form, to have these informed discussions.”

On the value of knowing how to slaughter an animal

“It is because of we found and developed technologies that allowed us to access the nutrients that are in animals, that we are even here standing on the planet today the way that we are. In fact, a lot of our evolutionary story is based on the way that we have used animals for food.

“We use upwards of almost 90 percent of that animal for not only food, but also for tools and for leather and the rest of it. So these animals are being used completely, which helps the students’ ethical perspective. Not only does it show them what can be done, but we actually do all of that. When they get into it, they realize that there’s something valuable and powerful to this. A lot of people call it visceral insulation. Modern Western people are insulated from the visceral nature of how we get our food. This is one way that these students can have access to it, and they thrive.”

On the philosophy of “sole authorship”

“The idea is that we create for students experiences where they author their own education on a project based, hands-on learning experience. It’s not they’re watching a video on butchering, or they go and watch somebody else butcher, or I even hand them a knife and a partially butchered animal. In fact, what they’re doing is they’re finding the rock, they’re making the tools, they’re butchering the animal, they’re making tools out of the bones, they’re cooking the meat and then consuming it. It’s a complete full circle. They learn through all their senses. They feel a sense of ownership, and they learn at each one of these steps things that we just can’t replicate in an artificial learning situation.”

On whether young people need to be trained in technology

“They do need to be trained in technology. They do need to learn how to live in a modern world. What I’m trying to do is open their eyes and allow them to see the world the way their ancestors did. By doing that, my hopes are that these students can blend or fuse that grounding with all the other things they’re learning in the modern world today to come up with brand new solutions and brand new ways to deal with each other, with the world, with the environment, with their food.

“Students who are not necessarily the best test takers, or the ones that will always raise their hands in class, thrive in an environment like this where they can take their skills and leverage them in a way that makes them thrive. They might be the best at making a tool, or they might be the best at planning a strategy in a group kind of a setting. With these open-ended questions, it’s really inclusive for all types of teaching and learning styles.”

On how “The Great Human Race” has made him a better anthropologist

“That was a powerful set of moments for me as an archaeologist. I got to actually see the residues of the activities that I was engaged in that an archaeologist in the future would find if we had left it behind. It allowed me to look at the archaeological record in a different way. In a more powerful sense, it was the first time… I’m very passionate about teaching through the sole authorship lens. But it was my opportunity on this show to author my own education through those experiences. Cat and I were the only two people ever on the planet to live — even though it was only about eight days at a time — but live as close as we could to the 10 most significant time periods in our evolutionary past. I know that we didn’t think the same exact thoughts as our ancestors did or feel the same exact feelings, but we came pretty close.”

On Cat Bigney and their work together

“We figured out a way to make some really remarkable television that told one of the most important of our shared ancestral past. Certainly we had to make accommodations on both sides in order to do that in a way that reached large audiences. I believe that show aired in 171 different countries. The number of people that have contacted me, of all ages, to ask questions and talk about things that they’ve never had in front of them or even thought about before — it was overwhelming. And it was worth every second.”

On steps individuals can take

“There’s some amazing organizations, great conferences. I’m the chair of EXARC which is an international organization that really focuses on primitive technology, experimental archaeology, opener museums, historic interpretation. Get in contact with them and you can connect all over the world through that. But more immediately, I think the easiest way to reconnect, get to practice some of these skills and do it in a way that’s really meaningful for people and their families, is through food. Things like foraging, fermentation, fishing, hunting, trapping. Even if you do it just every now and then. If you do a little bit of foraging in your yard or go fishing a couple times a year, you are making a connection that allows you to feed yourself very healthy foods, but helps you maintain a connection that impacts the way that you shop at the stores, the way you feed your family. The results of that are increased health and changing the market in a way that helps with issues such as sustainability.”

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