June 13, 2013

NASA's Latest Discovery of Possible Ancient Life on Mars and the Man from Clay Monomyth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

A recent report from NASA says that samples taken from the surface of Mars has indicated the presence of clay and other minerals, indicating a long history of contact with water. 

According to the scientists, “Clay minerals tend to form only at a more neutral pH. This is water you could drink. It was much more favorable for things like prebiotic chemistry – the kind that could lead to the origin of life.” Since Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago, it could have theoretically sustained life. 

What is interesting to me is that clay and water have been an important reference point to life throughout history. Perhaps the ancients knew something we do not? Could complex organisms arise from such simple material as clay? Here is just a short look at the universality of the “Man from Clay” myth from varied translations, cultures, and regions: 

Assyro-Babylonian: Aruru (Ninmah, Nintu, Ninhursaga, Belet-ili, Mami) - made Enkidu in Anu's image by pinching off a piece of clay, throwing it into the wilderness, and birthing him there. 

Canaan-Ugaritic: According to Gibson's translation, "men are considered made of 'clay'."

Sumerian: According to Samuel Noah Kramer (Tablets of Sumer, Colorado,1956) Nammu and Ninmah, mixed clay which was 'over the abyss' and brought man into existence. Gods were having difficulty in finding food, and their problems have increased when the later born goddesses joined them. Enki the water god - he was the god of wisdom and in a position to help them - was fast asleep in the sea and did not hear their complaints. Enki's mother Mother of all Gods Nammu brought the tears of the complainants to Enki and told him in their presence: "O! my son, get off your bed... do what is wise. Give shape to (make some) servants to gods. Let them make their own copies.(?)" Enki thinks, decides to head the 'union of good and bright modelists' and says to Nammu: 'O! mother, the creature you have mentioned exists: Put the image of gods(?) on him. Shape his heart from the clay on the surface of the Bottomless Deep. Good and bright modelists will thicken this clay. You make its organs; Ninmah (Goddess of Earth) will work in front of you. While you are making a model…goddesses of birth will be with you. O! mother decide on the faith of the newborn, let Ninmah put the image of gods on it: This is the human."

Ancient Egyptian: Khnum, the ram-headed god of Elephantine, the potter, fashioned men on his wheel, making use of the clay in his locality as his basic material.

Ancient Greeks: Prometheus shaped man out of clay and Athena breathed life into this clay figure.

The Qur'an, the lord says "I am going to create a human being out of clay. When I have formed him and breathed My Spirit into him, fall down in prostration to him!" (Qur'an, 38:71-72), Then inquire of them: Is it they who are stronger in structure or other things We have created? We created them from sticky clay. (Qur'an, 37:11)

The Pangwe of Cameroun say that God first created a lizard out of clay which he placed in a pool to soak. He left it there for seven days, and then called ‘Man, come out’, and a man emerged instead of a lizard.

The Inca: "There he raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed."

In Asia, The Bagobos, a pagan tribe of South-Eastern Mindanao, say that a god took two lumps of earth, shaped them like human figures, and spat on them; so they became man and woman.

Due to the monomythic nature of the "Man from Clay" narrative, some scientists have tried to study its possibility. 

According to the findings of scientists, Martin Hanczyc, Shelly Fujikawa and Jack Szostak at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and published in the highly reputable journal Science (vol 302, p 618 ), it may appear possible that life can originate from clay particles and water. After experiments, the team found that the two crucial components for the origin of life (genetic material and cell membranes) could have been introduced to one another by a lump of clay. 

They studied montmorillonite clay and concluded that it can dramatically accelerate the formation of membranous fluid-filled sacs. These sacs can grow and undergo a simple form of division, giving them the properties of primitive cells. Previous work has shown that the same simple mineral can help assemble the genetic material RNA from simpler chemicals. 

Leslie Orgel, an origin of life expert at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in San Diego, California has noted that “the clay also gets internalized in these sacs”, postulating a connection between the mechanism that creates RNA and encloses it in a membrane. One theory about how this works is that the negatively charged layers of clay’s crystals create a trapping of positive charge, creating a highly attractive environment for RNA subunits to concentrate and join together into long chains. In their research with clay, it was seen to have a 100-fold acceleration of the formation of these sacs. Once formed, the sacs were able to use bits of clay and grow by absorbing more fatty acid subunits. They essentially made "protocells” that could divide, grow, and evolve. 

This fits very well with not only ancient “Man from Clay” myths, but it also fits the scientific research showing how the basic building blocks for RNA-like molecules and membranes can be spontaneously created by chemical reactions that could occur not only on a primordial Earth, but outer space as well.

Considering all of this in relation to the new findings by NASA, it really shows just how important the discovery of clay on Mars is. Could this mean there were complex life forms on Mars billions of years ago? If the theory of panspermia is accurate, could life on Earth have been a result of primordial seeding of this material from Mars? This is especially interesting to think about when considering the ancient creation myths. 

There are too many uncertainties to conclusively answer any of these questions. To me, this is precisely why it is such an exciting subject. One thing is certain; we have only scratched the surface!  

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