While some may discount it as a fad diet, paleo foods do have a lot to offer for people in today’s fast-paced world. In this episode, we take a look at how food has shaped our society and culture. Dr. Jack Wolfson sits down for a thought-provoking conversation with archeologist and anthropologist, Dr. Bill Schindler. Dr. Bill traces the way the human diet has changed over eons and discusses the cultural, social, and political significance of food. Listen in and enjoy this mouth-watering conversation.
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Why Paleo Foods Are Best For Your Heart With Dr. Bill Schindler
I’ve got a PhD in Anthropology and Archeology. This is Dr. Bill Schindler. Welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Let me give you some of your credit because you got some serious credit. You’re not just another paleo person talking about what makes sense. You’ve done a lot of research in your life between what you’ve read and experienced personally. We’re super excited about that. Associate Professor of Anthropology and Archeology at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland and you’ve been all over the internet. You’ve been interviewed all over about your opinions, beliefs and studies about ancestral health and wisdom. Why is there so much debate amongst people? We don’t have to tell a lion or a tiger how to live or what to eat. Why are the humans so messed up?
We didn’t have to ask ourselves those sorts of questions in the past but something’s very different about the way that we approach food than any other animal on the planet. That difference began about three and a half million years ago when we first created the first tool. It’s unfortunate but we are probably one of the weakest species on the planet. That means that we have an incredibly difficult time accessing natural resources from the world around us to use as food.
Prior to 3.5 million years ago, everything that we collected, harvested and ate, we had to gather with our own hands, processed with what we possessed anatomically. Compared to other animals, it’s not that much. We’re not that fast. We can’t swim fast, fly, climb well and even dig into the hard ground. If you think about what our diets were like pre-tool because the oldest stone tool ever found currently dates to 3.3 million years ago, which by the way is the same time period that we start seeing the earliest butchering sites. Prior to that time period, our diets consisted of a collective forging of a select few plants, vegetables, fruits and insects. That’s about it. That’s what our digestive tracks are designed to process.
As soon as we started overcoming these physical limitations and creating tools, technologies and behavior patterns to access more resources, we also had to find ways to transform those resources into something that our bodies could deal with because we have inefficient digestive tracts. That’s what we do. Our dietary past is built on 3.5 million years of creating incredible technologies that allow us to access the most nutrient-dense, various resources from our environment and turn them into the most nutrient-dense bioavailable foods possible.
We do that in a cultural environment. We’ve created these diets, technologies and behaviors that other animals don’t need. We’ve transcended our limitations and the limitations of our digestive tract. One thing people ask me all the time is, are we designed to eat meat, grains and the list goes on. The answer to that question is no. Our digestive tracts are not. However, it’s the wrong question because that question began to become irrelevant as soon as we started creating technologies to overcome those limitations.
It’s very difficult for our bodies to completely digest a hunk of raw red meat but that doesn’t make a difference because we create tools, cooking and all other things to break that food down to make it accessible to our bodies. The question we should be asking is what diets, technologies and behaviors where our bodies, species and cultures are built on. It’s a complete package. It’s not just about food. You can’t separate meat and any food from the technologies that surround us because if we do so we start getting into trouble. That’s our problem. We’re talking about foods that we should be eating but we’re forgetting these technologies that made those foods meaningful for us.
Let me take you back to 3.5 million years ago, were those people different from us though? Did those early humans have other characteristics that made them better hunters and gatherers? I would assume and I’ll throw it out there to you. To me, the pinnacle of man must’ve been 15,000 years ago when we were the biggest, baddest, strongest people, before agriculture came around. Now, I don’t know if survival of the fittest is the right terminology because our survival is based on adaptations to our environment. Let me reverse it again, 3.5 million years ago, how were we different? Any thoughts on that?
It’s unfortunate, but humans are probably one of the weakest species on the planet.
We’re different a number of significant ways and much all of this is related to diet. We’re talking about Australopithecine ancestors that stood full-grown adults, three and a half feet tall, much smaller brains and the females were much smaller than the males were. All of that is diet-related. Certainly, the females were kept smaller, we think because the highest nutritional times of need in a female’s life is when they’re young, pregnant and lactating. The highest is when they’re lactating. In order to make sure that we do the most important thing we can do as a species and reproduce viable offspring, we start with a lower nutritional need.
When we start seeing females of our species getting closer in size to males, it’s one of the things that suggest that our diets are getting to be of a much higher quality. Body size and brain size is much small then and that means their nutritional needs were much smaller then as well. It’s not until we start seeing these major hallmarks of our dietary past occur over millions of years that we start seeing our bodies change. The major hallmarks in my mind are when we created our first stone tools and then start butchering animals. It’s the first time meat is in our diet. The meat that our ancestors at that time were accessing was just meat. It was scavenged carcasses from the African savanna.
We see predators now and use them as a proxy for the past, predators will take down another large animal, go in there, eat the organs, gorge themselves and then go off and sleep. During that time, when they go off, we can run in there if we have tools and cut pieces of hunks of meat off before they come back. We see meat enter the diet about 3.5 million years ago. There’s not a hugely significant change in brain or body size then.
The most significant change happens at about 2 million years ago so another 1.5 million years later, two things happen. We start hunting and cooking. When we start hunting, the biggest change is that we have the first access to the animals that we kill and to the best parts of that animal. I like to think in terms as many of us do, nutrient density. If it’s about nutrient density, meat is much more nutrient-dense than vegetables but it is the least nutrient-dense part of an animal.
When we see a significant change in body and brain size when we’re hunting and eating the organs, blood, fat, brains, all of that and also meat. A huge change 15,000 years ago with the introduction of agriculture, the way that I like to look at our dietary past and the role that technology played in it, is that we are horrible biologically at getting food and digesting food but we’re incredible using our brains to find ways to transform things that we have no business eating into incredible, safe, nutrient-dense, bioavailable food. That doesn’t stop at 15,000 years ago because there are incredible things that we can do with certain brains and with dairy. If you look at many traditional diets, they do.
One of the points you brought up as well is that when I spoke at an event called Paleo f(x) and everybody’s going around for their protein shakes and they’re having their hamburgers. They’re not even grass-fed. There are so many people in that community. I’ve been telling this to my patients for years, “I’m advising you to eat Paleo but that does not mean go to Burger King and order a Double Whopper and hold the bun. I’m not saying that.
When an animal in the wild kills another animal, they eat the organs and they leave the carcass maybe for later or never for scavengers. When a killer whale in the wild kills a great white shark, it knocks it unconscious, goes around, swims and grabs that liver and then takes off. It’s phenomenal type stuff. How do we get the organs back into our diet in the 21st century?
I’m working on that very problem, both at the Eastern Shore Fruit Lab here at Washington College but also in my own house. I have three young kids that are part of the modern Western world. The thing that’s easy to get into our diets in our modern Western kitchens takes a mind shift because the flavors are amazing and satiating. It’s re-introducing animal fats into our diet. It’s very easy to do. We use lard, tallow, duck fat, smalls and marrow regularly. One thing, we hunt and butcher home a lot.
This is a roundabout answer to your question. One of the things that are the biggest issue with the way that we approach animals in this country and the Western world, in general, is that we’ve taken the face away from our meat. We need to put it back. It’s even so bad and I’ve worked in a lot of commercial kitchens lately. Chefs and people in kitchens, they use the word protein. “We got to get the protein on the menu. We got to put the protein in the kitchen.” We’re not even saying meat anymore. We should be talking about the entire animal. It is not problematic. It’s a beautiful, visceral, wonderful, and humbling thing to remember that an animal gave its life so that we can eat. We shouldn’t shield ourselves from that for ethical reasons, sustainability reasons and for health reasons.
In our house, there’s a lot of butchering happening and my kids are around it all the time. That helps because we brought this package in and then all of a sudden, I’m grabbing a kidney out of this but there are strong flavors. They are that most of us in the modern Western world are not used to. The cool thing is when cooked right, they can still be amazing but it does take some work. You can’t slap a cow’s liver in a pan and expect everybody in the house to love it. There are things like soaking in milk and those sorts of things that help.
Tell me about the benefits of eating the organ meats, specific to the health benefits of that, starting with the brain because I’m assuming that’s where you’re going with that. Once we are able to eat those organ meats, get the best cuts that led to brain explosion, I’ve also read that getting seafood led to the explosion of our brains as well. How much do those organ meats and seafood play in our brain and body development?
That’s another great question that I am not as well-versed in. I’m a prehistoric archeologist trained in that world, an experiment archeologist and primitive technologist so my understanding of this is focused mostly on looking at the correlation between when we start seeing things entering the diet and then when we start seeing body, brain, culture and social changes as well.
I don’t know all the answers about this specific mineral or component, their vitamin that helps with these things. What I can say is there’s a correlation between nutrient density and bioavailability of food and changes in our bodies and also in our cultures. One date I also want to throw in there very quickly because it’s important that I missed in that earlier timeline is that 300,000 years ago was the current date we’re using for the emergence of our species, modern-day Homo sapiens on the planet.
The first tool that allows us to access food and overcome our physical limitations is at 3.3 million years ago. Butchering occurs almost exactly at the same time. We start seeing hunting and probably cooking at 2 million years. A host of things happening after that, detoxification of plants, fermentation and lots of these things. At 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens appear with the same brain, body and digestive tract size as we do. They do it at a time when I’m convinced it’s the only time they could have because of the diet that was there to support these new bodies and brains.
Was it a gradual change? Did something on a large scale happen 300,000 years ago?
It’s a great question that we don’t have enough evidence to answer yet. That 300,000-year-old date is a brand new one. Up until a few years ago, the date was 200,000 years ago. I wish I could say we have a species every 100 years, we have a new example and we could see these changes. We don’t have that fineness of a resolution of data but the fact that we’ve been around for 300,000 years is pretty significant.
Where does seafood come into the mix? What came first? We’re spearfishing where we’re getting the seafood, mollusks, clams, oysters and scallops? Where does that come in versus hunting animals?
The earliest evidence for consumption of fish and I could be wrong here but it’s at around 2.5 million years ago on some of the Homo habilis sites in Africa. There were remains of huge catfish. I don’t think it’s at a significant level but it’s there enough that something we’ve taken notice of. It’s my impression that hunting land animals are more important early on than the consumption of fish. Not necessarily more important but we see more of it.
One of the reasons we may see more of it is not necessarily because there was more of it but because of how fragile fish remains are on archeological sites. If there’s fish there, it’s very rare that they ever last, even a few thousand years in the archeological record. The only true bone in a fish is this microscopic bone in the ear. Not seeing that the remains of these things may be more of a product of what we call taphonomic processes, what’s happening in the ground is more than reflective of what’s happening in the past. There’s a lot of hunting for a long time. When we do see people in places where there’s fish, there’s a lot of fishing going on later on.
Tell me about all the societies in the history of the world that have been vegan.
I just did. We have no evidence for pre-historically in which I don’t think comes as a surprise.
One of the things you talk about, you have this quote I saw from one of your PowerPoint presentations, “It’s not about eating like a caveman, it’s about eating like a human again.” Give us some insight as to how we bring it back because I do have three children, one is still breastfeeding away and our other kids, their first foods were liver, sauerkraut, different sardines, wild salmon, those were their original foods. Tell us how we eat like humans again.
Our diets built us, biologically and culturally.
The director from the National Geographic show I did, The Great Human Race, Brandon Gulish, came up with that quote after me telling him a lot of the trials and tribulations my family and I had been through with all this for the past several years and I’m sure you can connect with a lot of this. When I had kids and I still am very focused on what they’re eating, how they’re getting it, where it comes from, their connection with all this, but some years ago, I went off the deep end and I said every single thing that goes into their mouths, I’m making 100% from scratch including everything that goes into their lunches. Especially with their lunches, I wanted to make sure that they weren’t ostracized at school for having weird stuff.
What I tried to do as far as their lunches were concerned was to make their lunches look like their friends’ next to their lunches but it was 100% made from scratch. I was curing all the meats and slicing the ham, making sourdough loaf bread that looked like the other bread, making all the cheese and all of it. It was a great learning year for me but I drove every single person in my house mad. It was too much. My wife and I have full-time careers. The kids were involved in all sorts of sports and everything. It was so far over the top that I was doing, in some cases, harm as much as I was helping with their diets.
The next thing milestone that I came to is I consciously made a decision and the questions I asked myself, I decided I was going to pick one of two things to focus on. Is it more important for me to make sure that my kids don’t get something in their mouth and into their bodies or is it more important for me to focus on what they are getting into their bodies? I made the decision to focus on what they were getting into their bodies and not be this complete food Nazi on every single thing that they ate. Plug them for answers when they come home from a friend’s house about what they’re eating at their friend’s house and all this.
A magical thing happened when I did. When I focused on what they were getting in and the other part took care of itself. They’ll eat something here and there but they were satiated and happy. We weren’t driving each other crazy. What I decided to do was and this is very empowering and liberating if the focus is on nutrient density and bioavailability, I believe that our ancestors’ focus has been for millions of years that in any given situation, the idea was, “How can I get the most nutrition with the least amount of work?” That was what it was like.
If that’s the approach that you take and transplant that in our modern lives and whether you be at a grocery store or health food store, looking in your refrigerator, wherever you are, at a birthday party, if you’re looking around and you say, “This is my environment that I’m in at this very moment. What steps do I take to get the most amount of quality nutrition into my body?” It’s liberating. You’re not sitting there angry about the choices in front of you. You’re making do with what you have and we’ve never been healthier and happier and it is just a part of it.
The other part of the human piece of this is the understanding to me that, biologically, we are essentially the same as we’ve been for 300,000 years. Our brains and bodies are the same sizes. Our digestive tracts are the same biologically for the most part. Microflora is always changing because of environmental reasons. If that’s true and even if there was one diet 300,000 years ago, which there wasn’t and even if I knew what it was, which I don’t, I could probably convince somebody to eat that diet based on the idea that that’s the diet we humans should be eating exactly that. You might wake up the next morning and eat the same diet but in a week you wouldn’t do it anymore. It’s very foreign to us, the taste, flavors and all these things.
What I’m working on, the focus of all my work is to take this understanding or try to get as best as I can this baseline understanding of our biological needs and the role that technology and behavior patterns overtime played in us meeting those biological needs with the resources around us. At the same time, understand that culturally we are very different than we were 300,000, 1,000 and 5 years ago. We have different expectations of things like taste, texture, smell, presentation and different access to resources and time.
In my mind, any way to address our modern and future issues with food, we have to take both of those things into account, our biological and our cultural needs and fuse them together in a way that you end up with something that makes sense and is relevant, meaningful and successful. Our diets built us biologically and culturally.
One thing I also like to say is and I believe this wholeheartedly, every time that we make a selection in the grocery store aisles, put something into our cart, order off a menu at a restaurant, cook at home for our loved ones and take a bite of food. We are expressing to everyone around us, much of what we are, our traditions, religion, family, socioeconomic status and politics. All of those things are expressed through food because it’s so intricately linked, food and all those things in our lives. We can’t separate the two. We have to find ways to make all of it work and mesh together to have real solutions. That’s what I mean by learning to eat like humans again, taking both the biological and the cultural needs and finding a way to fuse them into something that makes sense.
Coming in from a cultural standpoint, how do we bring that in? Are you talking about how we’re all sitting around the fire and sharing the food and drink? How do you bring that culture back into a society that is clearly more divisive? Nobody knows their neighbors and nobody’s outside anymore. Everybody, when they’re eating, is glued to technology. How do we bring that back?
It’s been a project for several years but we launched at Washington College something called the Eastern Shore Food Lab and it’s a food lab that’s set up with the focus of reconnecting people with their food. It is my hope is that by doing this, we also reconnect them with what it means to be human with their environment, past, community, one another and even with themselves. Food is a great vehicle to do this for all those reasons. We’re trying to do several things. A lot of this isn’t anything new but we’re very much focused on it and trying to teach people to cook their food 100% from scratch, an entire meal, the meals that they’re used to every single day.
When they come in and do that with us, we get to talk to them. I’ve done and I’m continuing to do research all over the world with groups that are engaged and still in traditional forms of food processing. It could be something as simple as we were just in Oaxaca, Mexico, nixtamalizing maize and making tortillas up in the mountains in San Antonio de la Cal. We’re focused on nixtamalizing maize and making real traditional tortillas at the food lab is one of the things that we’re focused on right now because it’s accessible to people. When they come in and eat our food or cook with us, we get to tell them stories about how this is done still now in the mountains surrounding Oaxaca.
We get to tell them about we have evidence for this processing for 6,000 years and we have maize. It was first domesticated 15,000 years ago and they must have been using a process similar to this in order to not run into difficulties with niacin deficiencies. Two things happen when we cook and teach like this. One is we get to convey while people are using all of their senses and engage with their food, we get to convey these stories, messages and lessons while they’re cooking. The second thing that happens when people are cooking entirely from scratch is they learn the real process for how their food can be made.
In my mind, if they never do it and cook it again, they at least can go into the grocery store and pull the veil away from all the marketing and advertising and start to at least support the people that are cooking food and producing food the right way. That’s one way to connect with food in a meaningful way. It’s that cooking from scratch which helps.
You start to think how does one go out and if one’s not a hunter, where does one even learn to hunt or get the food? We’re out in Colorado and we hang out at a place called Sustainable Settings. We try and teach the kids these are the chickens. My oldest one is watching the chickens being slaughtered. We haven’t done it personally but we’re gathering the eggs. We’ve done the hand milking and the raw milk and shot at my kid’s eye. Back to the children, society is so against everything with trying to raise children in this way and you’re ostracized.
The 5-year-old, 6-year-old and 7-year-old don’t know but once the child gets to be 9, 10, 11 and this is why it’s so important and I’m sure you have done that with your children as well is to educate them right from the beginning on why and the importance of doing this. Sadly, the health ramifications on what’s happening to the other children from those behaviors, we felt it’s the educational piece with the kids.
One of the most accessible ways, in addition to cooking with your kids, that we find to connect our kids with their food and their environment, all of us, our entire family is foraging. Foraging is such a wonderful way to do that because you can do it anywhere. I do an urban foraging tour in the middle of Washington DC every year. It’s one of my favorite tours every year. I do a bunch of them in the woods and the suburban areas but this one in the middle of DC is so cool because it’s typically people from that area that come in. They’ve walked the same streets their entire lives, we go out there and in two hours they’ll never look at those streets the same way again.
We forage for about 2 hours, come back and cook for 2 or 3 hours. You can forage anywhere that you are. Even if you’re not actively foraging, once you start to get into it a little bit, you’re looking at the windows of the car, riding your bike, jogging, looking and watching plants grow and go through different cycles when they’re edible, toxic and not and that is such a meaningful way to reconnect with something that has been a part of our diets for the entirety of our existence. It has been taken away from us.
Here’s a great example. When I talk about food and diet, there are taboo words that people don’t like to use. One of them is the word toxic. If I say the word toxic, all of a sudden, that’s a whole category of something that shouldn’t even be in a conversation about food but the reality is most staples in traditional diets around the world are based on plants that their wild version was toxic and many of their early heirloom varieties were toxic. A potato is an amazing example. The wild potato is highly toxic and most of the heirloom varieties of early potatoes were highly toxic. Some of the ones that are still under cultivation still are, many of these things.
The fact that it’s toxic doesn’t mean we can’t eat it. We developed technologies to detoxify these plants and get around them. These are the basis of our diets for thousands of years, if not longer. Having a conversation about foraging, toxicity, seasonality, detox, all these things open people’s minds to what diets can be and what they might’ve been like in the past. This is what I understand. We’re the only plant-eating animal. Not that we should eat plants but we do eat plants. We’re the only animal that eats plants that don’t also intentionally consume earth any longer.
There are certainly detoxification reasons or reasons for engaging in geophagy. The potatoes one in Peru, there are still a few groups in the mountains in the Andes where they’re still eating a toxic variety of potato. The way they detoxify is through these clay dips. They dipped the potato in this cauldron of mud and then eat it. The toxins bind with the clay and pass through our bodies. I’m going there to do some work.
Walking around and seeing your lawn as something different is so much better in many ways. Foraging is great. Especially for kids, when we don’t like to think that way, the idea is that kids and plants, when you put something in their mouth and teach them how to feed themselves and all of a sudden, the modern view of it is that we are endangering our kids by showing them what they can eat. That’s not the case. We are empowering our kids by showing them what they can eat and giving them a view of the world that most of us didn’t grow up with.
The other thing that is important is the butchering piece. If you’re going to have meat in your house, it’s a responsibility that there’s at least some connection that there was a life that was lost to feed you and your family. I don’t mean you have to bring a cow into the kitchen and have blood everywhere. Even taking that step from buying chicken breasts to buying the entire chicken is a huge step. For many people, it’s a step that is a leap but by doing this, you’re seeing a carcass, feeling, the smell, all of those things are very important. On top of it, you’ve also taken a zero-waste sort of step where you have a whole carcass instead of one meal from that chicken breast, you have 3 or 4 meals out of that chicken.
Humans are the only animal that eats plants that don’t also intentionally consume earth any longer.
As we’re having this conversation, staring out into the grass where I’m at and there are dandelions all over. One of my favorite things in the world is dandelion greens. Growing up in Chicago, we would see dandelions all the time. I never even heard of the concept of a dandelion green because I would see the dandelions on our way to Dairy Queen or McDonald’s or something.
Lawn, to me, implies grass. I’m going to assume you’re not talking about foraging through your grass and the idea of maybe having some edible landscape. You got to agree with me on this why anybody in the 21st century should plant this variety of grass, whatever this genetically modified grass is, where nothing else grows when you can plant edible plants and flowers. That should be your lawn and it’s spectacularly beautiful. Can we get back to that? What do you think?
Unless you’re dousing your lawn with all sorts of herbicides and other nasty things, if you take a close look, there’s a lot of stuff in there besides the grass. That’s a beautiful thing. Let me tell you a quick story. My father had me hunting, fishing, trapping, camping and hiking since I was a very young kid and I grew up in New Jersey and the suburbs in New York City. One thing I started doing on my own was foraging. I started foraging when I was ten. I got one of the little Peterson Field Guides then and every time I found a plant and I’d look at it every night. I pick the plants I wanted to find and I’d go out to the parks and places to go and find these. In the woods, I go and find the plants. Every time I found one and identified one, I take a leaf and I put it on the page where that plant was.
My 1-inch thick book became thick over the years but there were some plants that I couldn’t find and identify. This went on for years and it would say in the field guide that it grew in my area but I couldn’t find them. Many years later, I went on a foraging tour in Central Park with a guy named Wildman Steve Brill and if you ever heard of Wildman Steve Brill, he’s something else. To make a very long story short, he would run these forging tours. I think he still does.
We met him at the entrance to Central Park, right by the Museum of Natural History. You’d meet him and everybody would give him $10, $20 or whatever. He’d collect all the money then we started walking and I could see the woods in the distance. We’re following him and I’m thinking, “Let’s go. It’s going to be a ten-minute hike.” He walked about 15 to 20 steps. He did it on purpose, turned around and said, “Look at your feet.” I looked down at my feet and I saw the grass that is the same grass that I saw when I walked in and he was like, “Look.”
As he started identifying what was at our feet, I started realizing that some of those plants that I never identified I’ve been walking over my entire life. When I went back home, they were on my parents’ lawn. I had been living within feet of these plants that I’ve spent years trying to find. These basic things like cats-ear, chicory and you can eat the entire dandelion plant, not just the leaves, are there. You don’t have to go into the woods to find them. You can find them in the cracks of the sidewalks, in your lawns and everywhere.
Is that to be processed in any way whatsoever. Dandelion greens, I’ve gone through farmer’s markets with big, beautiful ones, they’re all organic and all that stuff. I’m sitting there in the market eating the dandelion flower. Nothing of that has to be processed. You go eat it and you’re good to go.
The flower is fine. Underneath the flower, there’s a green part that’s a little bit bitter you might not enjoy the taste of. To me, the best part of the dandelion is the crown, the part between the leaf and the beginning of the root. It’s like the oyster of the dandelion. It’s amazing raw or cooked. The root can be steamed, boiled or processed in a lot of different ways. One of the cool things too is if you have some of those huge dandelions, the stem makes an incredible straw for cool specialty drinks. That sounds silly but we should play with our food. We should do these things.
There was a book that I read. In researching, I was asked to write a chapter in an integrative cardiology textbook and they asked me to write a few different chapters. I said, “I know you appreciate this as a father, I’ve got the bandwidth for one chapter. That’s all I can do.” They said, “Write the chapter on paleo nutrition,” and I found a ton of literature on paleo nutrition for cardiovascular benefits.
One of the books that I came across was called The Stone Age Diet by Walter Voegtlin from the mid-1970s. Voegtlin was a gastroenterologist and it’s an amazing book. You can find it in PDF. I don’t even think it’s in the print version but that was his whole thing. It’s that he breaks down the digestive tract of humans versus various animals. He says we are omnivores but we’re closer to carnivores. He comes up and he says 2/3 animal versus plants.
One thing that you soon find out in the anthropology and archeology world is that the information that we’re dealing with is fragmented. It’s biased in many ways and our job is to make sense and interpret this information. That’s what we have to do. As we learn more, the same information is getting reinterpreted and that’s a very cool, exciting thing. When you’re looking at ethnographic sources, we always have to remember who is doing the recording, what their background was, what their intent is and what their bias is. Quite often, the sources that we’re looking at are documented by a group that’s going in to conquer another group and they are writing down what they see filtered through their own eyes and for whatever purpose they’re writing it down for.
Quite often a lot is missed that way and this is in very much support of this meat-fat thing. I give you one very quick example of the first time that I thought about this. Many years ago, I was doing work in Denmark and I was working with some Inuits from Greenland who happened to be at the same event that I was at. There was a woman there who was the last surviving woman who makes these amazing toddler coats out of a bird called the little auk. It is a small bird but it’s full of fat. It takes something like 50 or 60 birds to make this one coat that’ll last one child one year. She’s the last surviving person to do it and I watched her give this demonstration. She used her ulu knife and cut this bird. She took the skin off of this bird in one of those magical ways I ever saw. It has to be exact.
She went through the steps of how to tan this little bird’s skin and then showed us how to sew it later on. Anyhow, I asked her if she could show me one-on-one later. She would. That night and the whole next day, we were butchering these birds and then I was tanning one myself. This is the process for tanning. Once you get the skin, keep the feathers on it, get the skin off of this bird and the bird is about the size of your fist. You turn it inside out, start with the head of the skin, put it in your mouth and you have to suck all the fat out of the skin. It’s the first step in the tanning process. As you suck, you keep sticking it in your mouth more until the entire bird is in your mouth. It’s over four hours for one bird.
She bragged that her mother was the only person who could fit a whole duck inside of her mouth, the skin inside out with the feathers. At the end of this 4 or 5 hours, this is the fattiest bird I’ve ever seen in my life. I sat there and sucked the fat out of the skin for four hours. This woman, in the past, it wouldn’t have been just her, would have done hundreds of birds like this over a several-month period to make all the coats needed to do this. I’m thinking to myself, “What amazing nutrition did I take in over these 4 or 5 hours.”
I went back and looked at all the ethnographic references I could find about diet documented for people doing this and none of it mentioned this process. If you watched it, even if you were focused on technology and how people were tanning skins, you’d be documenting this for the purpose of understanding how to tan these skins. You completely miss the amazing nutrition that this woman has been taking in for months every single year. It is high-quality, amazing nutrition. The information that’s out there has to be weighted through but there’s a lot more that can be done with even what’s there. We’re only literally scratching the surface of what’s possible for us to find out about what our diets were like in the past.
Bill, it’s an absolute pleasure. I could talk to you and pick your brain forever. This is such fascinating stuff. You go to some of these conferences and it’s a bunch of people reading the literature and debating it but you’ve been in the field. I have no doubt my readers are going to want a lot more information about you, your work and the whole lifestyle that you’re talking about and creating. Where can we find out more about you?
There are a couple of great places. Thanks for asking. My website is www.DrBillSchindler.com. We have the Eastern Shore Food Lab of Washington College, the new project that I’m working on. You can find that at www.WashColl.edu/ESFL. You can follow me @DrBillSchindler on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We keep a very active social profile. Also, my family, we’re called the Modern Stone Age Family is @TheModernStoneAgeFamily. It’s the same thing. We keep a very active social media presence so please feel free to follow us. If anyone has any questions or wants to communicate, you can find my email address there as well.
Do you eat those big brontosaurus burgers and ribs like The Flintstones?
Something like that for sure.
We’ll see you next time. Thank you.
Thank you so much.
- Dr. Bill Schindler
- Sustainable Settings
- The Stone Age Diet
- @DrBillSchindler – Facebook
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- @TheModernStoneAgeFamily – Instagram
About Bill Schindler
Dr. Bill Schindler is an internationally known archaeologist, primitive technologist, and chef. He founded and directs the Eastern Shore Food Lab with a mission to preserve and revive ancestral dietary approaches to create a nourishing, ethical and sustainable food system. A co-star of the National Geographic Channel series The Great Human Race, Dr. Schindler’s work has been covered by the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and the London Times, among other publications.