The Great Human Race
Bill Schindler takes hands-on teaching quite literally. It’s not unusual to see the associate anthropology professor at Washington College teaching students how to launch an atlatl on the campus green, showing them how to bake bread in an earth oven, or teaching them how to flint-knap arrowheads and stone tools they then use to carve up a deer.
Students can expect his classes to become even more real, thanks to his starring role in the National Geographic Channel’s new program “The Great Human Race.” (“Episode One: Dawn” airs on the National Geographic Channel on Monday Feb. 1 at 10 p.m.) For seven months last year, Schindler and his co-star, survivalist Cat Bigney, retraced the migratory routes of our ancestors from the roots of humanity in Africa to the “new world” of North America. In each location and time period, Schindler and Bigney had to survive and adapt with only the tools and technologies that our ancestors of that time and place had available to them.
In one episode, Schindler and Bigney race the sunset to set up camp high in a tree for the night—and sleep there—while in another, they scavenge the remains of a lion kill, hacking through a thick bone with a stone tool, running to safety with their treasure, and then scooping out the nutritious marrow with their fingers. They made all of their own clothes and tools and learned to survive as both predator and prey.
For Schindler, whose specialty is experimental archaeology, the opportunity to star in “The Great Human Race” was both a dream come true and a fantastic challenge. It would give him a chance to actually use his skills as a primitive technologies expert in the “real” field and see how well they did or did not function.
And, as a teacher first and foremost, he was most interested in what he would learn from the experience, and how that would inform his teaching.
“The main reason I said yes to this, and what I got out of it, was really to test the stuff that I talk about in class,” Schindler says. “I hate to talk about anything in class that I haven’t done. And it’s a really hard thing to do, especially in this field, because we’re talking about such different times and geographic areas. I’ve been able to at least dabble in most things, and be able to talk about them from an informed perspective. But there’s so much—there’s two-and-a-half million years of time that I haven’t really gotten to. This was the opportunity. Cat and I would be the first people ever to truly attempt to live in all the major time periods in our evolutionary past, the ones I talk about in class every single semester.”
To the extent possible, every detail was accurate to the time. For instance, the rocks that Bigney and Schindler used to create their tools were the same as those available to our ancestors. And although he realized that as a human of the 21st century, he couldn’t actually think like the people of the period, he and Bigney faced the same challenges and had to find solutions, a kind of problem-solving that was intense and fascinating.
“I learned about the tools. I learned about the clothing. I learned about how to maintain clothing in all different types of environments. I learned how to start a fire when I was truly cold. I learned what it was like to hunt when I was truly starving. I learned what it was like to look at a water source that might be sketchy but know that was my only option. And I got sick several times as a result,” he says.
“But now I can stand up in front of a class, and even though I know I wasn’t thinking the same thoughts as someone two-and-a-half million years ago, and I know it wasn’t exactly the same, I have a much more informed perspective to say, ‘This is what it may have felt like, this is what it truly felt like when I was out here.’ That’s the main thing I took away from it. And it’s empowering. The amount of information I took in was like doing two PhDs in seven months. I will never look at anything the same again, surely.”
“The Great Human Race” series premiere, “Episode One: Dawn,” airs on on the National Geographic Channel on Monday Feb. 1 at 10 p.m. It will be followed by nine more episodes airing each subsequent Monday. Later this year it will be broadcast in 171 countries and 44 languages. For more information, see http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-great-human-race/ .