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)