In May 2019 an article in the Australian edition of the Guardian discussed the extraordinary public endorsement of Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, which was originally published in March 2014. After a slow start its reputation and sales grew. By the time the Guardian included Dark Emu in its ‘series of literary highlights’, The Unmissables, the work had received a swag of awards, been adapted for dance and documentary and revamped in a special version for children.[i] That was probably the apogee of Pascoe’s fame. Inevitably, in a country racked by interminable culture wars, reaction occurred, right-wing counter attacks flourished and some commentators, though not many, have chipped away at perceived weaknesses in Pascoe’s argument and evidence.[ii] A powerful diversion appeared in the form of claims that Pascoe had no right to regard himself as Indigenous. I am not going to discuss that argument here.
What I am going to discuss is how Pascoe’s core argument in the various iterations of Dark Emu obscures the astonishing achievements of Australian Aboriginals in sustaining a successful hunter-gatherer society prior to European settlement. The author runs the risk of doing precisely what he doesn’t want to do: downplaying the ability of hunter-gatherer societies to live for millennia in a continent with some of the most inimical environments in the world.
So, what in brief is the thesis of Dark Emu? It comes in two parts. One part re-evaluates explorer accounts of early contact with relatively pristine Aboriginal groups to observe that these white chroniclers had observed compelling signs of sedentism, agriculture and technical developments, which those driving the new settler society didn’t want to publicise given that terra nullius was such a potent ideological weapon. The second component of Pascoe’s thesis is that, with some honourable exceptions, the academy has long ignored evidence that showed Aboriginal society had taken definite steps into the Neolithic era, ie. was agriculturally based in many instances.
Let’s take the second point first. Pascoe’s position here is problematic to say the least. As far back as 1975 there was another best-selling book about pre-conquest Aboriginal society – Geoffrey Blainey’s Triumph of the Nomads. That work argued strongly for the skill in which Aboriginals managed their environment and the challenges it posed though in no way suggesting that agriculture was present. Since then there has been considerable academic analysis in various disciplines about the complexity of Aboriginal culture including their ability to work with the land, and how in certain regions, new technologies, for example, the famous eel traps of Western Victoria, mark an increased sophistication in resource management. This scholarship has also been part of several undergraduate courses in Australian universities. I should know, as I was for years one of the team who helped deliver Janet McCalman’s pioneering The Ecological History of Humankind at the University of Melbourne. We referred to, and used, the work of several of the scholars discussed above, such as the archaeologist, Harry Lourandos, whose publications are evidence that Pascoe has, like most of us, predecessors.
As far as the first component of Pascoe’s argument is concerned – the observations of early explorers – I would refer readers to the telling article by Russell Marks in the May 2020 issue of The Monthly.[iii] Marks’s article covers far more ground than I do here so I only point to his critique of Pascoe’s treatment of those explorers’ records where he concludes that ‘selective quoting creates an impression of societies with a sturdiness, permanence, sedentarism and technical sophistication that’s not supported by the source material.’ And that is also my reading of Pascoe’s distortion of what is not a large collection of primary material. The line between Neolithic and hunter-gatherer is not totally binary. That position would be accepted by many scholars in the field but nevertheless in pre-1788 Australia the steps into an agricultural culture were first stage only, very preliminary. Unless further evidence is unearthed, we must accept the judgment of Peter Bellwood that despite Australia possessing some regions with great potential for agriculture, that system was not adopted.[iv]
More significantly, is the issue of hunter-gatherer versus sedentism as crucial as both Pascoe and his ideological opponents, like Andrew Bolt and Peter O’Brien, insist it is? Proponents and opponents are essentially fighting for possession of the one position. We must not adopt a social hierarchy which places sedentary crop-based society at the top and hunter-gatherer cultures below. As I said previously, hunter-gatherer Aboriginal culture was in many ways a triumph, to borrow Blainey’s term. Think too of the advantages of such a lifestyle: not living in your own waste products, few, and not lethal, infectious diseases, aerobic fitness and the intimate knowledge of your local region – its flora, fauna, climate, possibilities and threats. And with no climate or ecological crisis to kickstart agriculture why change a winning formula? 1788 was, of course, another matter.
[i] Lorena Allam, ‘Dark Emu’s infinite potential’, originally published 24 May 2019, Guardian Online, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/24/dark-emus-infinite-potential-our-kids-have-greon-in-a-fog-about-the-history-of-the-land, accessed 23 April 2020.
[ii] See for example, Peter O’Brien, Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Quadrant Books Online, 2019.
[iii] Russell Marks, ‘Taking sides over Dark Emu: How the history wars avoid debate and reason’, The Monthly, May 2020, https://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/russell-marks/2020/05/2020/158086886/taking-sides-over-dark-emu#mtr, accessed 24 April 2020.
[iv] Peter Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, pp.34-37.