Bruce Pascoe Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia And The Birth Of Agriculture
(Magabala Books, 2014; 2nd Ed 2018)
A review by John Carr
Pascoe’s main claim in Dark Emu is that historians have wrongly classified the Aboriginal people as ‘hunters and gatherers’. (For background, see the boxed text below.) Rather, he argues, like indigenous people in other parts of the world, they had developed a range of advanced agricultural and pastoral practices appropriate to the climate, landscape and indigenous plants and animals of their country. They were, he claims, “at the very least, in the early stages of an agricultural society”.
The main evidence he presents for this claim are reports by early explorers and settlers, reports that they had seen extensive areas of reaped and stacked grains, stores of grains and tubers, and waterways that had been modified as large, complex traps for fish and eels. They also reported seeing housing that was more substantial than the stereotypic flimsy ‘gunyahs’ normally used to show what most, if not all, Aboriginal buildings were like. Some of the most detailed evidence of the existence of true agricultural activity comes from the diaries and reports of explorers Thomas Mitchell, Charles Sturt, George Grey, John Batman and George Robinson.
Mitchell, explorer and Surveyor-General, while responsible for some brutal treatment of Aboriginals, wrote lyrically of some of the fruits of Aboriginal agriculture that he had seen. Some explorers wrote of being rescued, fed and cared for by Aboriginal communities.
Many of the reports, including those of Mitchell and some of the early settlers, exhibit a remarkable paradox. A description of a thriving community is often followed by a gratuitous racist put-down. For example, the invention of an ingenious fishing machine was branded as proof of the inventor’s ‘laziness’. On ‘discovering’ and naming Australia Felix, Mitchell infamously gloated, “A land so inviting and still without inhabitants”.
His vision for the future of the landscape was for neatly fenced fields, quietly grazing sheep and cattle, rows of cottages and a neo-Gothic village church with tower, spire and bell. And ‘real’ inhabitants! Evidence of any advanced indigenous culture was sometimes suppressed by settlers who wished to play up the many difficulties and dangers of pioneering in what was, for them, an alien environment.
One of the difficulties we now face in assessing the level of agriculture of pre-1788 inhabitants is that not much visible evidence survives. The indigenous land-owners were quickly driven from those parts of the continent attractive to the settlers, forests were cleared and the soft soils suitable for growing yams and other tubers were trampled hard by the hooves of sheep and cattle. The predominantly plant- and animal-based artefacts, such as dwellings and clothing, soon rotted or burnt. What has survived are stone tools and some of the substantial stone weirs and fish-traps. The massive middens where people had feasted on shell-fish for centuries may not speak of ‘pastoralism’, but they do point to long-established, settled communities.
Initially, publication of Dark Emu in 2014 did not attract a great deal of comment, either positive or negative, though its publication history suggests that it has gradually gained momentum. With the appearance of the 2018 edition, it has won a number of awards and an increasing number of advocates and detractors. In the past week, News Corp journalist, Andrew Bolt, well-known for his attacks on perceived exaggerated claims of Aboriginal disadvantage, has written articles questioning the accuracy of Pascoe’s claims. As he has with other Aboriginal activists, he questions whether Pascoe is, in fact, Aboriginal.
One aspect of Aboriginal land management that has generally been widely accepted for many years is their use of regular, selective, small-scale burning of forests and grasslands. This is the centrepiece of the argument that Pascoe puts forward in the second half of the book, that contemporary Australia can learn much from Aboriginal culture and practice. In the context of the present horrific drought and bushfire season, it is a case that is attracting wide support. Aboriginals lived sustainably in this, the driest continent, for at least 50,000 years. The European occupiers appear not to have had any understanding, let alone appreciation, of Aboriginal culture or of how benign their management of the environment had been. In two hundred years, crops and domestic animals unsuited to the climate and soils, over-cropping and over-stocking, widescale mining and the ever-widening spread of urban construction have destroyed much of the best land, some of it irrevocably.
Whether flawed by exaggerated claims or not, Dark Emu is an important book for all Australians and the claims made in it deserve our fair and balanced consideration.