Why Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Truer History’ is Mere Mythology

Bruce Pascoe’s books Dark Emu (2014 and 2018) and Young Dark Emu (2019) have been selling in the tens of thousands and are being introduced to our schools. Young Dark Emu is subtitled “a truer history”. Those in our schools should be coached in what “truer history” means. It requires distinguishing between history or archaeology and folk myths.

Pascoe’s books form a bridge between reflection on the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and on the human sciences (archaeology, history), because his approach to what he calls “a different way of seeing” blurs astronomy (science) with astrology (superstition and folk mythology) in ways that undermine his claim to being a good teacher or historian—never mind a good astronomer. Similarly, his approach to history blurs the distinction between inquiry and folk myth or mere “tradition”.

The fundamental question for school students is: How would we know that one version of the past was “truer” than another? Understanding this is more important than any given narrative or political version of the past that they might be taught. As it happens, an online teaching guide for the use of Young Dark Emu in schools (https://readingaustralia.com.au/lesson/young-dark-emu) suggests that such a question be discussed. Unfortunately, it presupposes that Young Dark Emu provides “a truer history” of our past, without specifying how, exactly, this is to be discerned or what other histories it displaces.

The term “dark emu” is the key to Pascoe’s books and to how he thinks. At the front of each book is the image of an emu superimposed on the night sky. In Dark Emu, this is explained as follows:

Baiame, the Creator Spirit Emu, left the earth after its creation to reside as a dark shape in the Milky Way. The emu is inextricably linked with the wide grasslands of Australia, the landscape managed by Aboriginals. The fate of the emu, people and grain are locked in step because, for Aboriginal people, the economy and the spirit are inseparable. Europeans stare at the stars, but Aboriginal people also see the spaces in between where the Spirit Emu resides.

In Young Dark Emu, the image is a whole-page frontispiece. Facing it is the following passage:

Throughout history, humans have looked to the night sky to help explain their existence, but the conclusions peoples draw from the same sky can be remarkably different. European astronomy [sic] uses constellations of stars to tell a story, but sometimes Aboriginal Australia uses the darkness between the stars. Dark Emu is a shape in the dark areas between the stars of the Milky Way. It’s a different way of seeing. 

Young Dark Emu concludes with another full-page image of the dark emu motif and a repetition of the passage from Dark Emu cited above.

In short, Pascoe frames his “truer history” in terms of mythology and astrology. Baiame, the “Creator Spirit Emu” is the sign—of the zodiac, as it were—under which he proffers it. He suggests that looking to the night sky (without the aid of telescopes or scientific understanding) and regarding “constellations of stars” as a way of making sense of human existence is the “European” approach to “astronomy”. It is nothing of the kind. This is important, because it casts the criteria for “truth”—historical or scientific—into a mythological blender. This should certainly not be how history is taught in our schools.

History, like science, is about discriminating between myths and realities, not choosing a beguiling alternative myth as a “different way of seeing”. This is fundamental. When the pre-Socratic natural philosophers began speculating 2600 years ago about the physical character of the cosmos, they expressly set aside myths and asked: What is in fact the case? Parmenides, Democritus, Thales, Anaximander and Anaxagoras weren’t failing to see Baiame in the sky. They were seeking to grasp what natural laws make the cosmos work the way it does. This was even more so of the Hellenistic scientists, like Eratosthenes, Aristarchus and Archimedes.

Reading the Greek myths—say, Ovid’s beautiful rendering of them in his Metamorphoses—is one thing. Reading the natural philosophers is entirely another. Plato would later confuse things by generating stand-alone myths. Aristotle confined himself to rational inquiry and still got a lot of things wrong. Modern science basically begins with the critique of Aristotle and the beginnings of experimental inquiry. A truer astronomy, biology, physics and chemistry followed. This took centuries of patient, critical work. That scientific work now underpins our economy and also our capacity to reconstruct the past, through radio-carbon dating and even more refined methods. Substituting Baiame for this is, well, barmy; at best a vague exercise in “lateral thinking”.

As James Lawrence Powell pointed out in Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences (2015), deep time—the fact that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000—was discovered only in the past couple of centuries. It transforms the way we look at the world. Is this a different way of seeing? Absolutely it is, but not one based on myth or “the Dreaming”. Similarly with plate tectonics. It took decades for evidence and argument to persuade even professional geologists that continents drift and change shape, but it is now established: not merely as a “different way of seeing”, but as a reality concerning how this planet functions and what has occurred on it over aeons.

What, then, of history, as a discipline? What would it mean to write a “truer history” as distinct from merely “seeing” the past in some arbitrarily and mythologically different way? The first systematic historian of whom we have record—anywhere on Earth—was Thucydides, 2400 years ago. To make such a claim is itself to imply a master narrative of history. But that narrative is at least checkable and corrigible. Thucydides, like the pre-Socratic natural philosophers, was a pioneer in attempting to discriminate between truth and myth. His words set the bar high for those who would write “a truer history”.

In the preface to his history of the Peloponnesian War, he wrote: 

Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever.

This was the key: subjecting traditions and conventional myths to critical tests—pushing aside credulity and prejudice. Pascoe claims to be challenging the historical tradition in Australia by applying critical tests to it. But Thucydides expressly eschewed myth and poetry or popular appeal in writing his history. Pascoe hasn’t done that. His dark emu metaphor gives him away. Thucydides went on:

Assuredly, the conclusions I have drawn … will not be disturbed by the verses of a poet displaying the exaggerations of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend.

Pascoe, on the other hand, frames his “truer history” precisely in legends from the Dreamtime—and the politics of our time. Thucydides would roll his eyes at this approach to “truer history”.

The Greek historian declared that he tested the accuracy of reports “by the most severe and detailed tests possible”, in an effort to correct for the imperfect memories, partialities and biases or oversights of his various sources. We have no justification, in the case of our national history, for doing otherwise. It is, therefore, less than reassuring that Pascoe frames his history in terms of myth from the outset and makes poorly informed claims about “astronomy” as a guide to his vision. Discussion about using his books in schools should begin with whether he has given us romantic fiction with a political edge—common enough, to be sure, in B-grade historical writing—or the “truer history” he claims.

Even at his best, he gives us a cribbed summary of much better work by Bill Gammage, Billy Griffiths and others. Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth advances a serious argument for the single most credible claim Pascoe has to writing “truer history”: that Aboriginal firestick farming, over tens of thousands of years, transformed the Australian landscape. Griffiths, in Deep Time Dreaming, provides us with a scholarly and riveting account of the development of scientific archaeology in Australia since the early twentieth century.

Pascoe’s work, by contrast, is derivative, lacking in rigour and overtly politicised. He writes, all too often, as if the findings unearthed by scientific archaeology confound the “white” or “European” way of seeing Australia’s past. In reality, the crucial archaeological methods and techniques of dating, pioneered in the twentieth century at Cambridge University and elsewhere (including our own universities), made it possible for the Aboriginal presence in Australia to be reconstructed, over the past seventy years or so, in many cases from complete oblivion.

These methods and labours, not looking for Baiame in the night sky, have made it possible for us to establish that human beings arrived on the old Sahul landmass of Greater Australasia approximately 45,000 years ago. Claims have been made for an earlier date, but these are confuted by genetic evidence that the Aborigines inter-bred with Denisovans within the past 50,000 years, which cannot have happened after they arrived in Australia. Scientific and painstaking excavations at Lake Mungo and on the Franklin River, among many other sites, over the past seventy years, have put Australian archaeology at the very forefront of the global project of piecing together a truer account of the human past, all the way back to the hominin breakout from Africa and dispersion across other continents.

Similar things are true of historical and sociological inquiry regarding the impact of European settlement—call it invasion, if you will—over the past seventy years or so. Ever since the work of Charles Rowley in the 1960s and 1970s, we have been aware, in documentary detail, of the devastating impact on Aboriginal society of the Anglo-European occupation of this continent. His books The Destruction of Aboriginal Society and Outcasts in White Australia were path-breaking and had a major influence on national policy regarding indigenous Australians.

Yet Pascoe thinks he has given us a “truer history” and that the Aboriginal past had been “suppressed” by white society over the past century and more. In fact, without the passionate, concerted and systematic inquiries of “white” scientists, archaeologists and historians, almost nothing of either the deep or even the more recent past would be accessible to our understanding at all. Pascoe would have offered us a truer history, in the strict sense, had he acknowledged these things and declared that his simplistic and romantic little narrative stands on the shoulders of the giants in the field.

His chief purpose, it seems clear, is to argue that the Aboriginal population were not “mere” hunter-gatherers, but practised agriculture on a large scale and lived in settled villages. This has political implications, as he knows, given the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century approaches to so-called terra nullius. His approach to this important issue, however, is tendentious. He does not attempt to give us a complex picture of conflicting evidence; but a sweeping one, in which the evidence is exclusively, overwhelmingly and inexplicably on his side. This is not reassuring.

By way of contrast, Tim Flannery (no one’s idea of a white supremacist or apologist for colonialism) edited, in 2002, a reprint of the memoirs of William Buckley, first published in 1852, which depicts an Aboriginal past stunningly different from the one Pascoe offers as a “truer history”. Buckley was an escaped convict who lived among the Aboriginal population, between 1803 and 1835, in the Bellarine Peninsula and Barwon River region. He was seeing things at first hand, over a prolonged period, “before the Fall”. He learned the language of his hosts and their hunting techniques. He fathered an Aboriginal daughter. What did he find?

He encountered endemic and savage violence, episodes of cannibalism, superstition and a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He was so disillusioned with the violence and superstition that he withdrew from Aboriginal society several times to live, either on his own or with an Aboriginal companion, by the coast. When he learned that white seamen had landed on the Bellarine Peninsula in 1835, he went to find them and never returned to live among the Aborigines. Pascoe nowhere addresses the anomalies with which all this confronts his tale of paradise lost.

In the final chapter of Dark Emu, Pascoe praises the work of Gavin Menzies, whose book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World has about as much credibility as Erich von Daniken’s 1968 pot-boiler Chariots of the Gods. Pascoe asserts that Menzies’s book was path-breaking and showed how humane and peaceful the Ming Chinese were compared with the cruel Europeans. This undermines his credentials as a writer of truer history almost as seriously as his dark emu motif. It’s a wonder that those doing curriculum design didn’t notice this and, on such grounds alone, decline to put Pascoe’s books in our schools.

Yet these books are there now, and the challenge is to guide teachers and students in how to read and analyse these “texts”. Those seeking a comparative basis for rethinking Australian archaeology and history might begin with Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Like Gammage and Griffiths, Mann is “Thucydidean”. He is unsparing in describing the devastation of Native American cultures and populations by the European colonisation of the Americas. He shows that the accomplishments of the Native Americans before Columbus were far more impressive and their numbers much greater than conventional scholarship or opinion had allowed for centuries. There is, therefore, scope for a truer history, but above all for students to learn how truer history is put together. It isn’t done the way Bruce Pascoe does it.

School education needs to instil in young people more than anything else a basic understanding of methods for thinking and learning well. This is hard work. Thucydides wrote, long ago: 

it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.

That cast of mind put the historian on a par with the scientists and philosophers. Pascoe doesn’t meet such standards. His work has a decidedly romantic element and is, alas, designed to meet the taste of an immediate public. It doesn’t do the necessary work of helping us to understand clearly the events of the past. For that we need other historians—and good, conscientious teachers.

Paul Monk (www.paulmonk.com.au) has a BA in History and a PhD in International Relations. He is the author of ten books, of which the most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018)

17 thoughts on “Why Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Truer History’ is Mere Mythology

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Paul, thank you for a very readable and useful appraisal of Pascoe’s work. However, I cannot help but feel you do him too much credit to describe him in any way a historian – he is a propagandist pure and simple and as such his work is littered with lies.

    On another point, Pascoe is not the only one who conflates aboriginal astrological myths as ‘astronomy’. There is a whole discipline touted as ‘Aboriginal astronomy’, which I adress in a, hopefully soon, forthcoming expanded edition of my book Bitter Harvest.

  • jbhackett says:

    Joanna Hackett – 11th May 2020

    Pascoe’s “Young Dark Emu’ has been shortlisted for the Eve Pownall Award, which is presented annually by the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), for books ‘…which have the prime intention of documenting factual material…’. The CBCA has been in existence for seventy-four years. In that time, the public has always been able to trust it to make reasoned, professional decisions regarding the merits of the works considered for awards. Parents and educators know that the CBCA stamp of approval means a book is of consequence and a worthy addition to a child’s library.
    As ‘Young Dark Emu’ is not factual it is not eligible for the Eve Pownall Award.
    I have written to the CBCA requesting (respectfully and with reasons) that Pascoe’s book be withdrawn from the short list. I suggest that others may wish to do the same.

  • NFriar says:

    So good to see Pascoe is not being left alone.
    The brainwashing of our children is tragic.
    DE is the Trojan horse to Aboriginal Sovereignty.
    Thank you for your Bitter Harvest Peter – looking forward to the new book.
    Will it be posted on here?
    Thanks to Joanne Hackett my research group into DE will be sending some emails to CBCA.
    Are you aware that Pascoe’s YDE is shortlisted the Sydney Writer’s festival Awards?
    Marcia Langton has her ‘Welcome to Country’ for juniors as well

  • rosross says:

    It is good to see qualified professionals speaking out about the travesty of history which Bruce Pascoe presents in his books and argued so succinctly.

  • rosross says:

    Peter O’Brien – well said.

  • myrmecia says:

    I have not read Pascoe’s book, but as I understand it his “dark emu” is a shape in the night sky formed by an absence of stars – in contrast to the traditional constellations that are marked by stars at points that give form to representations of symbolic objects or beings. Can I suggest that the idea of looking at reverse images owes more to Edward de Bono than to Aboriginal culture.

  • jbhackett says:

    NFriar- Pascoe is certainly not being left alone. There’s a mob of us out here who will continue to prick away at Pascoe because we care desperately what our children read. Indoctrinating children with untruths for political gain is the act of a bottom crawler. It’s just not on. As well, we do not believe that fame and fortune should reward malfeasance. We love this country too much to see it being brought so low without fighting back as best we can.

  • Lonsdale says:

    jbhackett – are you serious? Has your ‘mob’ invited Peter O ‘Brien to give a public lecture?

  • Lonsdale says:

    myrmecia – before commenting you should read the book.

  • padraic says:

    It looks like Pascoe is softening up the kids for the dream of a separate Aboriginal nation and our eventual colonization by those nice Chinese communists.

  • Stephen Due says:

    I would see Pascoe’s narrative as another salvo in the ‘history wars’. I admire some work in this field, especially Keith Windschuttle’s book on the Fabrication of Aboriginal History. However it would be an illusion to imagine that there is some Archimedean point whereon the historian can stand to write objective history. Indeed I think that your critique of Pascoe shows that this is not possible.
    Inevitably I think in the historical enterprise we must stand up for the civilisation and the culture we think is superior. And to me this is precisely where Pascoe fails, because his work relies on sentimental appeal, not on a solid assessment of aboriginal stone-age culture as against other cultures and civilisations.
    Also I think that Pascoe’s work should be critiqued according to old-fashioned academic standards. This would necessitate his providing a complete survey, and where necessary a reasoned rebuttal, of existing work that intersects with his own. It is not good enough just to get up and say you’ve had a clever idea about villages. Too much history today is written as if the opposing narratives did not exist, and opposing arguments and interpretations can be ignored. This makes history a shouting match.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Stephen Due, I say again, Pascoe is not a historian and his work is not history. The ABC, among others, defend him on the basis that his interpretation of history is just as worthy of consideration as the traditional view. But Pascoe’s book is not ‘interpretation’ of his sources. It is deliberate misrepresentation and manipulation of them. The only standard that Pascoe’s book should be critiqued against is that of truth vs falsehood.

  • Nezysquared says:

    The mere fact that books such as this are published, discussed and taken seriously via means of debate says much about the current state of this country….

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Nezysquared, I agree with everything Peter O’Brien and other critics have said about Pascoe and his “work”, but I also believe that publication of such books should not be in any way censored. Publication of such rubbish opens it up to criticism by genuinely knowledgeable people. At least as importantly, it exposes those like the ABC and others who support Pascoe and other such fabulists to the odium and ridicule that they so richly deserve.

  • wdr says:

    An excellent article, showing the absurdity of this nonsense. There need to be many more critical studies of pre-Contact Aboriginal society, where life was brutal, nasty, and short.

  • Footslogger says:

    Why should we, passively accept the unreasonable? Pascoe’s work is an essay, further supporting the fake, indigineous people that have, self proclaimed themselves to be original natives of this continent, Whats next? Treaty……Constitutional recognition, leading to rebel extinction, parliamentary self governing, never ending $$$$ handouts. Sack the White fella, that signed off on the textbook to be part of our schools curriculum.

  • Tricone says:

    The Buckley reference is interesting.

    Signs on certain walking trails in the Otways imply that Buckley abandoned his life with aboriginals because he was distressed at the encroachment of white settlement on their lifestyle. Yet the Flannery book , taken from the only primary sources available, states clearly that it was because he was distressed at the Aboriginals’ violence to each other and the toll it had taken on his adopted clan.

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