Erin Bloodgood showed up for class lugging a bulging black garbage bag. “Is that the skin?” her professor asked. She nodded, and pulled out the hide of a deer shot recently on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“Okay, so here we go,” Bill Schindler said, leaning close to it. “Obviously the fat and meat we want to get out,” he said, as blood dripped from the skin. “All that membrane has to come off, because we have to get the brain solution from this side all the way through.”
He was teaching her how to treat a hide in the way her prehistoric ancestors had done, to produce leather soft and strong enough to use as clothing. Nearby – but not so close that the deer fur might fly into the vat – other Washington College students were helping to brew beer. Inside in the kitchen, another small group was chopping vegetables, and a freshman from Delaware was reaching tense fingertips with pale-blue nail polish into a bucket of raw goose legs, face turned away, to begin making confit.
This is Schindler’s own unique style of nose-to-tail teaching. A prehistoric and experimental archaeologist who specializes in primitive technologies and food, he immerses himself and his students in ancient practices for an intense, visceral lesson in human history.
His underlying message is simple: Live it.
For a generation increasingly detached from the physical world by technology – where a tap on a screen can generate anything from an acai bowl to a political protest to a date — Schindler wants to jar them back to the concrete. Instead of glazed eyes in lectures, he sees surprise, confusion, excitement, disgust, curiosity, wonder. They forget their phones.
Last year, Schindler almost literally lived it, as he co-starred in a National Geographic TV series, “The Great Human Race,” which aimed to re-create our past from 2.5 million years ago until 5,000 years ago. That had him, for example, plunging spiked tools into the thick bark of a baobab tree to climb to safety before nightfall.
Schindler was more than a little hesitant to do TV, but ultimately was drawn to the rare opportunity to immerse himself in what he studies. In an odd way, it was a natural extension. For years now, he has been guided by an idea he calls “soul authorship”: creating something from beginning to end with total engagement in the process. His family eats little that they don’t make themselves. Their house is full of things fermenting, cheeses ripening, wild plants and mushrooms he foraged, wheat he milled, meat he hunted.
Experimental archaeology “gives you insight that you simply cannot get just from looking at the archaeological record,” said Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, who said Schindler is a leader in the field. “It’s important because we’re trying to understand the objects we see in the past.”
Schindler, who makes a lot of stone tools and eats a lot of bone marrow, explained his philosophy, his obsession, and his zig-zagging path when Washington College honored him for his teaching in 2014.
The date, he noted wryly in that convocation address, was exactly 20 years after he failed out of college.
A wrestler at Ohio State, his eyes began to deteriorate and he became legally blind, making coursework increasingly difficult. After he had restarted his academic life — eventually getting surgical treatment to restore his vision — he realized he learned best from professors who made him see the world through their eyes. And that became his goal when teaching.
One day, he asked a group of students to separate the yolks from the whites from some eggs. When he came back later, nothing had happened.
None of them knew how to crack an egg.
How could he expect them to understand the relationship between people and the environment, health and sustainability issues, he wondered, if they don’t even know the most basic thing about how to eat an egg?
So he starts at the very beginning: “How to crack an egg, how to butcher a pig.”
When another group visited the home of an expert one evening, and sat by the hearth listening to him spin tales about primitive tools, the students didn’t want to leave. Schindler thought it was the expert, a charismatic speaker.
No, they told him: It was the fire. They had never been next to a real fire before.
Schindler thought about all the time he had spent talking about how humans’ lives changed after fire was invented. Now he tries to teach those lessons at the moment when they’re smelling the smoke and hearing the pop of the fire, feeling all the heat and intensity and brilliance and wonder of the flames on a cold, dark night and — when they’re completely engaged in the moment — have them consider the impact of a single spark 2 million years ago.
“They remember it in a completely different way,” he said.
He hopes his students feel, hear and taste what they’re learning.
Sara Underwood, a student from Delaware, was feeling it. He had invited his class on primitive technology and experimental archaeology to his home one afternoon, along with another class in which students learn about food and prepare an elaborate meal made entirely by their own hands. Schindler was telling Underwood to use tweezers to pull out pin feathers.
“Oh!” Underwood said. “Are these all — ?”
“Goose legs,” Schindler replied, from birds he and his friends shot.
“They kind of look like how I imagine a human heart would look,” she said, her hands clenched above the bucket, like T-Rex arms. She leaned forward. “Is that blood?”
Schindler stopped. “You okay?” he asked. “I can get the blood out of here.”
She was okay, if not enthusiastic. He handed out knives while other students went to gather tinder in the woods. “At least get some cattails,” he called after them.
He showed students cheese, made from raw goats’ milk and coated with ash, ripening for the meal, which would include maple syrup tapped on campus, wild greens, cricket tacos. He grabbed a bag of duck carcasses and told a student to tear them apart (“Hannibal-Lecter style”) and score the feet for stock.
“This is my first time with food, ever,” said Rachel Treglia, nervous, starting the process of salt-curing and smoking bacon.
Cameron Watson, a pre-med student from D.C., was grinding corn for tortillas and talking about his classes. “Bio, I know what to expect,” he said. “Psych is just psych. And macro is just, like, a bunch of graphs all the time.
“This is by far the most exciting class. I learned a lot more about the real world from this.”
Outside, hours later, Bloodgood was still scraping the deerskin, sometimes pausing to push her glasses back up with her arm rather than touching the frames with her rubber gloves. “I have never done anything like this in my entire life,” she said, a New Jersey native who spends much of her time GIS mapping. “I’m so focused on new technology – we’re so far removed from the things we use.”
Her hands hurt. She was sweating. She was tired. And she loved the class. “Professor Schindler is a great professor – he’s awesome,” she said. “He’s extremely knowledgeable and extremely passionate. He’s lived it, he’s done it. It makes you really excited to be a part of it.”
She’ll probably never again use the skills she gained here, like gathering weeds to twist into rope. What she got was more lasting. “I learned about being a human.”