Following is an excerpt from the book, Origin Story, authored by David Christian:
As a child, I could not make sense of anything unless I could place it on some sort of map. Like many people, I struggled to link the isolated fields I studied. Literature had nothing to do with physics; I could see no connection between philosophy and biology, or religion and mathematics, or economics and ethics. I kept looking for a framework, a sort of world map of the different continents and islands of human knowledge; I wanted to be able to see how they all fitted together. Traditional religious stories never quite worked for me because, having lived in Nigeria as a child, I’d learned very early that different religions offer different, and often contradictory, frameworks for understanding how the world came to be as it is.
Today, a new framework for understanding is emerging in our globalised world. It is being built, developed, and propagated collectively by thousands of people from multiple scholarly fields and in numerous countries. Linking these insights can help us see things that we cannot see from within the boundaries of a particular discipline; it lets us view the world from a mountaintop instead of from the ground. We can see the links connecting the various scholarly landscapes, so we can think more deeply about broad themes such as the nature of complexity, the nature of life, even the nature of our own species! After all, at present, we study humans through many different disciplinary lenses (anthropology, biology, physiology, primatology, psychology, linguistics, history, sociology), but specialisation makes it difficult for any individual to stand back far enough to see humanity as a whole.
The search for origin stories that can link different types of knowledge is as old as humanity. I like to imagine a group of people sitting around a fire as the sun was setting forty thousand years ago. I picture them on the southern shore of Lake Mungo, in the Willandra Lakes Region of New South Wales, where the oldest human remains in Australia have been found. Today, it is the home of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi people, but we know that their ancestors lived in this region for at least forty- five thousand years.
In 1992, the remains of an ancestor (referred to as Mungo 1) discovered by archaeologists in 1968 were finally returned to the local Aboriginal community. This person was a young woman who had been partially cremated. (1) Half a kilometer away, remains were found of another person (Mungo 3), probably a man, who died at about age fifty. He had suffered from arthritis and severe dental erosion, probably caused by drawing fibres through his teeth to make nets or cords. His body had been buried with care and reverence and sprinkled with powdered red ocher brought from two hundred kilometers away. Mungo Man was returned to Lake Mungo in November 2017.
Both people died about forty thousand years ago, when the Willandra lakes, which are now dry, were full of water, fish, and shellfish and attracted multitudes of birds and animals that could be hunted or trapped(2). Life was pretty good around Lake Mungo when they were alive.
In my imagined twilight conversations around the fire, there are girls and boys, older men and women, and parents and grandparents, some wrapped in animal furs and cradling babies. Children are chasing one another at the edge of the lake while adults are finishing a meal of mussels, freshly caught fish and yabbies, and wallaby steak. Slowly, the conversation becomes serious and is taken over by one of the older people. As on many long summer days and cold winter nights, the older people are retelling what they have learned from their ancestors and teachers. They are asking the sort of questions that have always fascinated me: How did the landscape, with its hills and lakes, its valleys and ravines, take shape? Where do the stars come from? When did the first humans live, and where did they come from? Or have we always been here?