Meditation on Mungo man

Mungo man lived at the shores of Lake Mungo about 40,000 years ago. This is an ancient dried-up lake in far western New South Wales. Today we can comfortably project into the future for 3 generations or about 100 years. We can look back into the past for about 3,000 years; this is because that is the time from which writing as we understand it, started to provide us with a record of the earlier oral traditions. We cannot easily peer back 40,000 years ago, this time span is beyond our comprehension. Whatever theories we produce about the ancient inhabitants around Lake Mungo, we cannot prove these constructions are true. Nevertheless we can use our intuition and instincts to imagine what life was like so long ago.

What do we know about this person? He was tall and by all measures very similar to modern people. He belonged to a stone-age society. His teeth were worn away, probably from the grit that remained with the ground up seeds that he often ate. He had severe arthritis in one arm and was dead before the age of fifty. He was buried in a formal manner covered or daubed with ochre from a site over 100 km away. This suggests that his people could speak and trade with outside tribes-people and they may have believed in an afterlife.

What can we further construct using information from other archaeological and sociological studies around the world and through the centuries? The Mungo people may have been a stable population of perhaps 200, who lived on the shore of a lake that was a useful source of food. A stable, trading population with access to food and a deep attachment to one’s country would have made large scale warfare and massacres unlikely. After all sharing food and resources was a practical scheme; seizing or destroying the resources of others would have been an alien idea. Nevertheless men would from time to time be required to uphold the law and die if necessary. Women had to face the dangers of child birth, but reproduction and infant survival would have been regulated by the senior women in the tribe. Healthy and resourceful individual beings would have been of prime value to these people.

Please notice that my picture is entirely speculative but this doesn’t make it wrong! At present the remains of Mungo man have been returned to the vicinity of where they were found and no further archaeological exploration is permitted around the lake. If further remains become uncovered they are to be protected or reburied. I agree with this policy as we cannot expect any further discoveries to add much to our current knowledge. More details will simply refire our imaginations but not necessarily get us closer to the actual picture of life 40,000 years ago. For all the accuracy imputed to science, the age of Mungo Man has been determined to be between 6,000 years and 60,000 years; if you bear this in mind you will see why I view further discoveries as not being very elucidating.

Contemplating Mungo Man helps us form a picture of who we are and to reconstruct a theory of our importance to this earth.

Let me start with an atheistic point of view. I would prefer to call this a non-transcendent view point, meaning not only is there no God but there is no other reality outside that which we can establish with our science. In this case transcendence is an unnecessary and unprovable concept. From this point of view we can suppose that Mungo man was a slowly evolving brute, very like us because biological evolution is such a slow process. Mungo Man and all the other brutes, including ourselves, have come into being through random chemical actions and our lives have no other purpose than to survive and reproduce. I reject this form of thinking on the grounds that I fell intuitively that random, or chaotic, processes cannot attain a stable equilibrium.

The next viewpoint is roughly our traditional European Christian viewpoint. In this scheme there is a god who is outside of our observable reality. This god can be described as deus ex machina or a god outside the machinery. This god watched over Mungo Man and still watches over us today. We can assume that Mungo Man was no less important to this god than we are today. A question arises under this scheme and this is: Does God intervene on our behalf, especially when we pray? To make an unqualified affirmation is to suggest that God is like a Cosmic Santa Clause. We can find traditional and satisfactory responses to such questions, but when I contemplate Mungo Man I feel uneasy. Was this supposedly concerned and loving God hiding from Mungo Man? Why did God choose to reveal himself to humankind about 6,000 years ago? This is long after the life and death of Mungo Man. Using the bible story, we can suggest that Mungo Man lived in a ‘Garden of Eden’ state (as a noble savage) while about 10,000 years ago human thinking became sufficiently sophisticated and materialistic to become aware of the difference between constructive (good) and destructive (evil) actions. This is described in the story of the original sin of Adam and Eve. With evolving understanding came a new awareness of individual sentience and a higher sense of value of one’s life and the corresponding fear of death. This fits our traditional Euro-Christian biblical thinking.

As I sat at the campsite at Lake Mungo, where Mungo man may have once wandered, I realised that this was not a Garden of Eden and Mungo Man was so much like us that he would have had his triumphs and joys as well as losses and fears much as we have today. His life would be as important and fulfilling to him as our lives are for us today, despite his lack of material goods. We are closer to Mungo Man than we might want to believe. Using science we can demonstrate that we each carry thousands and probably millions of the same atoms that were once found in the living body of Mungo Man. I say this as a physicist, I do not mean DNA molecules nor do I mean cells. (We can make the same claim for any historic figure say Napoleon or the Buddha.) If each atom carries specific information about its particular past, then we may be linked more closely to Mungo Man than we ever supposed. Scientists have traditionally assumed that all atoms of the same isotope are identical but this is simply a working hypothesis. Today it still remains impossible for us to study the properties of an individual atom in order to confirm this hypothesis or to distinguish between atoms that are supposed to be identical. Mungo Man was very much part of the same terrestrial God scheme that we are involved in. We are part of the God who cares about us today; the same God who cared about our earliest ancestors. To suppose God pervades us and is found everywhere is essentially pantheism, very much part of our Indo-Aryan tradition; but generally rejected, without good reason, by the Euro-Christian tradition. With fewer material distractions, Mungo Man could well have ‘walked and talked it was an enriched source of Mungo man’s living atoms.


I should acknowledge that my thinking is influenced by A. N. Whitehead, a colleague and supervisor of Bertrand Russell (who took an almost opposite cosmic view to that of Whitehead). Whitehead’s philosophy has been ably interpreted and expanded by the late Charles Birch, who was for many years professor of Biology at Sydney University. Both Whitehead and Birch would have claimed their speculations were entirely consistent with the revelations found in the Bible. My understanding of physics is deeply influenced by Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, both of whom rejected conventional religious thinking but were happy to speculate on the nature of transcendence. When it comes to determining religious truth, I defer to Jesus who when asked “What is truth?” declined to reply, even though he was on trial for his life.

I have mentioned Einstein and Feynman; it is not surprising to find that Prof Paul Davies (in a forward to G. Milburn’s The Feynman Processor) credits these two scientists as exposing the possibility of Quantum Computing. When, or if, the quantum computers are developed with their Q-bits, we will have established the fact that a small number of atoms can indeed carry an almost infinite amount of information. Of course we do not need to wait for a physics theory and its confirmation to establish reality; or do we?

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