Of all the 450 essays I’ve written for Quadrant in the past decade, this one is the strangest and, to me, the most surprising. As The Bard said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Here’s how this story goes: I set out to debunk a new, presumed fairytale by would-be Aborigine Bruce Pascoe and wound up apparently debunking myself. Ouch.
Pascoe has twice claimed since 2020 to have discovered remnants of stone towns of pre-colonial Aborigines out Birdsville way. He says he spotted them from a helicopter in 2019. After the COVID/flood interruptions, he got back to the site around mid-2022 by road with two witnesses, and they discovered all sorts of nigh-incredible features.
His Dark Emu claims such stone towns — some of up to 1000 people — were hubs for Aboriginal farming and agriculture, and he even mentions animal pens. If verified, the surviving Birdsville ruins would buttress at least one claim of the Dark Emu thesis, namely permanent Aboriginal housing – whether permanently occupied still an open question.
He qualified his discovery by saying un-named Aboriginal elders had barred him from disclosing the site. This made his claims immune to refutation or confirmation.
For some reason the entire mainstream media has ignored this mystery, leaving the field to Quadrant alone to subject it to any scrutiny. I must add that the first claim, in December 2020, was on the ABC itself. Pascoe made it when being interviewed by the fox-hunting would-be pundit Jonathan Green. However, neither Green nor anyone else at the ABC had the smarts to follow it up.
The second of Pascoe’s claims was made in a prestigious annual lecture for the NSW History Council at Orange, NSW, on October 28, 2022 in the Hotel Canobolas (audience admission $65). I discovered a 9000 word transcript tucked away on the net here.
I wrote up the address for Quadrant focused on Pascoe’s bizarre sermon near the close of question-time that Australia should dispense with its beef and sheep industries and substitute kangaroo and bandicoot farming. He confessed to eating the protected but “delicious” bandicoots, but in his persona as Aborigine, he might claim legal immunity. This, plus his earlier advocacy for dining on non-bloated road-kill, made for great copy, as newshounds say.
However, the body of Pascoe’s address also had a host of new detail about the Aboriginal stone-housing sites he had visited. This time he claimed the main local elder (un-named) whom he went with barred publicity until the elder could find a trustworthy white archaeologist to work with.
Two pieces of a jigsaw might be meaningless but when fitted together, create a clear picture. In the same way, when one puts together Version 1 (2020) and Version 2 (2022) of Pascoe’s archaeological revelations, his old-Aborigine witness materialises as well-known Birdsville identity Don Rowlands OAM. Rowlands is the grandson of a traditional Simpson Desert grandmother; has been ranger and head ranger of the giant Munga Thirri (Simpson Desert) national park for 30 years; has worked hard to educate whites about Aboriginal sites there; and now has a side job as one of five councillors of Diamantina Shire.  A second witness to Pascoe’s tale is Don’s wife, Lyn, who runs Birdsville’s Karrawa Wirinya Coffee Shop. To spoil the plot of this piece, Don and – I gathered — Lyn vouch for Pascoe’s account. For credibility I’d rate Don highly. This essay therefore chronicles what looks like a world-shaking archaeological find, and made by Pascoe personally – not Pascoe blathering, referencing and frequently embellishing other authors. Old explorers’ impressions of native housing are one thing; stone foundations accessible today are quite another.
The Pascoe story matters because he’s beloved by the ABC (which offers schoolkids a 15-part hosanna to Pascoe; beloved by Melbourne University as its Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture (whatever that may mean); beloved by the school systems indoctrinating literally millions of kids; and beloved by the desperately woke Academy of Science. If you dare to read idiocies from Pascoe’s fan club in academia yesterday, click here.
I’ll now take you through Professor Pascoe’s two accounts of his find, verbatim. I’ll then lay out Don Rowland’s reactions (via my shorthand) when I described Pascoe’s accounts to him.
Version 1, Radio National, December 2020:
Pascoe: There is a lot I can’t say about Birdsville because I travelled through there with local people and some of the stories can’t be told yet but when we were there, we were taken to a place where Don Rowlands [veteran Aboriginal park ranger] erected a very moving but modest memorial to his grandmother in a tiny oasis, an incredibly beautiful thing.
But while we were going there we flew over old Aboriginal towns [note plural] of domed houses and in very recent times some of those houses had been destroyed, been destroyed deliberately by white land-holders, and yet these towns are amongst some of the oldest in the world.
In Australia we can blow up a cave of Aboriginal art and get away scot free, and we can bulldoze some old Aboriginal houses and get away scot free, and yet what we are doing is we are destroying one of the founts of human development, of where humans first invented ‘society’.
There are very old houses in Turkey, no-one would approach them with a bulldozer … but in Australia you can bomb anything [I never knew that, TT]. At Birdsville it was very moving for me in that regard, because I think it is such an important indication of the depth of Aboriginal spirituality and life and there are things there, I think in the next 18 months, will be revealed as some of the most important sites in the world.” [Well, I’m fulfilling Bruce’s prophesy now].
…[Another time] we were working with the ABC on a film about Dark Emu, we had the luxury of flying in a helicopter across that country, it struck me how few cattle there were…we have stolen land from Aboriginal people, destroyed Aboriginal sites, and this literally makes me weep but that is not the end of it. Some of these old villages are still standing, there are yet more to find, we can do something, we can intervene, we can stop our mining giants from blowing up Aboriginal caves..
Note that in this account Pascoe suggests but does not state that Rowlands is with him, and it is unclear whether the “aircraft” is a plane or helicopter.
Now, Version 2, NSW History Council at Orange, October 28, 2022. (My emphases)
Pascoe: Does history exist without the witness of an historian? Three years ago, I was traveling by helicopter with an old man [not here identified]. He was wrestling with a map, and I was gazing through the window at the wonder of the desert. “Brother,” I said. “You better look out the window.” He looked down and stared. The pilot swung the aircraft to circle the point of our focus. “We don’t have much time,” the pilot said. “Fuel.”
We were looking down on a stone arrangement of rock walls and interior spaces connected to each other. Maybe 30 of them. “Okay,” said the pilot. “You got to go now, you blokes.” As the aircraft swung around to complete its circle, we saw the ribbons of art stretching away to the west; lines of stone arrangements, circles, symbols, signs, and connecting to another cluster of 30 spaces.
“Never seen it before,” said the old man. He was in shock. This was his country. He knew its stories, was the keeper of those stories. [Re Don Rowlands, that’s correct]. “What do you think it is?” I asked him, presuming he would know. “I don’t know. What do you think?” He replied. “Houses?” I ventured. There was a gidgee tree growing nearby to give us perspective. The walls looked tall, the 30 individual spaces looked large, large enough to live in. We were silent all the way back to the nearest airport while the pilot clucked about fuel and lost time. When we got out of the chopper, the old man and I looked at each other, raising our eyebrows. This was big, bigger than both of us. A secret story of human endeavour.
Over a beer, we worked out a plan of how we could visit the site by car. “No archeologists,” was the old man’s final contribution. “No government. Just you and me.”
In this ambience, two old Aboriginal men [properly, Cornish-descended Pascoe and one old Aboriginal man] sip their beers and scribble on beer mats, hatching a plan. Then came a bushfire, two bouts of COVID, and floods.
But three years later, here we are, on the ground, walking by the walls we’d seen from the air, some as high as our shoulders. We found the lines of stone arrangements and their designs of circles and scrolls, and not one, but two other villages. Villages! The old man looked up and declared that there would have to be a well close by. He scanned the line of trees along the river bend. “Over there,” he said. “It’ll be over there.”
We walked in the direction he’d indicated, and I reckon he was 30 meters out. There was the well. The river was beautiful, all the houses would’ve looked across this beautiful, serene tableau. It was set in a gibbous swale between old dunes, and the whole area had been marked by humans. There were artifact scatters everywhere. Well, not everywhere, because they had been positioned aesthetically, like everything else in this charmed valley. But you could see where the old people had sat, the anvil they had used, and the beautiful array of chalcedony, silcrete, and chert chips that had sprayed out from their industry. I held a chard of chalcedony up to the light, and the sun beamed through a mauve and amber array… It made me wonder if, at times, they thought a blade too beautiful to use as a kitchen implement.
There’s the suggestion here that the houses included kitchens.
And I remember the bag one of our old fellas used to carry around everywhere. He forbade the kids to look into it. One disobeyed, apparently, but found a tiger snake in there. He never tried again. But there were crystals in that bag too. So precious, a snake was deployed as security guard.
This seems irresponsibly lethal.
I mentioned the beauty of the stones to the old man as we had lunch in the shade of a coolabah tree…
Some months before, I had risked showing the aerial photograph I’d taken from the helicopter to an archeologist. “Fish traps,” he speculated. If so, what were they catching? Whales? …
But don’t worry about the irony of an old man…
Pascoe’s nearly a decade younger than me
…worry about the nature of the stones. What was special about them? Did they create a better flour? Did they last longer? …
Pascoe then digresses for a long tale about a different ABC helicopter trip, plus Dark Emu’s thesis about Aboriginal farmers.
But back in the desert, those two old men [Pascoe and friend] were struggling with the enormity of what they were witnessing. Not just domestic social living, not just laboring on a product for trade, but all of it linked by art, and celebrated by ceremony.
I think it was a remarkable time in world history, and standing in their village, I wonder about humans who linked their suburbs with art. I’m in awe of them.
Using words like art, village, industry, spirituality, trade, peace has got me into a lot of hot water with many historians and archeologists. Old ones. “Piffle!” They say. “No such thing!” But there it is on the ground, waiting to be explained. But only if that old man can find a white archeologist he can trust.
The old man’s wife was wandering through the ruins with us and called me over. “Look,” she said. “It’s the town in miniature.” For there on the ground, was a tiny replica of the towns linked by art. We stared at it. “Who would go to the trouble?” she asked herself. “A child remembering a lesson? Or a teacher teaching one?” It was an excellent lesson, but for me it provided part of the answer to a riddle I’d been asking myself for 45 years.
He digresses to his thesis – contradicted by escaped convict William Buckley and his blood-soaked account — that pre-colonial Aborigines were peace-loving and never coveted each others’ territories.
Now, I suspect there are plenty in the room delivering very impatient sighs. “There he goes, gilding the lily, exaggerating, spruiking Black excellence.” I can understand your frustration, Deep Sigher, because our whole education of society has insisted on the opposite. But might I argue for a little patience, on the grounds that you haven’t seen these stones. Nobody has in the last 150 years, except maybe the ringer who rode through the complex on his motorbike sometime since the last flood. Riding through without stopping because he saw nothing of importance, just black rubble.
So apart from Andy, bored revhead, nobody has seen these stones and they won’t, until the old man can find a reason to trust [specialists]. And we only found these villages by accident, because the helicopter pilot had no permit to fly after dark, and the old man had complicated a visit to his grandmother’s grave [here at last is firm identification of Rowlands as co-passenger in both accounts] to show me some old conical Aboriginal houses not yet burned to the ground by the station owner.
Pascoe earlier here said he found the site, to the surprise of Rowlands, a minor slip.
Not even owner; we gave him a lease of sovereign land.
He’s saying the village is in an old station leasehold. Pascoe next exhorts a Yes vote for the Voice, and finishes his address.
… Good luck, old man. And good luck to your daughter. I hope her hand isn’t knotted with the strings of age before she hears those words. I hope my granddaughter is alive to hear them, and to say [Aboriginal language], “through the mother”. Thank you.
Question time was uneventful, apart from Pascoe’s digression into bandicoot farming and his speculation about Aborigines arriving here not from out of Africa but northward around 100,000 BC from the restless Antarctic landmass. A retired teacher of Australian history told Pascoe that he (the teacher) had taught the Dark Emu truths of Aboriginality “and I had the toughest kids in the class go out in tears.”
ON FEBRUARY 7 I read to Rowlands the gist of Pascoe’s accounts and paused to see whether he confirmed or denied the stories. Rowlands, who had been unaware of Pascoe’s statements, said he agreed with them. (Incidentally, for all Pascoe’s poetic talk about “old men”, Pascoe is 75 and Rowlands 73, give or take a year, while the current US President is 80.)
Asked whether he had sworn Pascoe to silence about the specifics, Rowlands said, “Brother, I would be hard-pressed to allow him to make a statement because the site has not really been investigated properly, and someone from my group could get cranky, but it (publicity) can and will happen, I just asked Pascoe to be silent until we got permission.” He clarified that his group was the Wangkangurru traditional owners, numbering about 200.
Pascoe had insisted he knew “someone wonderful” on archaeology who could check out the site, but Rowlands repeated that he needed first to ‘dot the I’s and cross the ‘ts’ with his mob before giving permissions: “That’s where it’s at, on a bit of a standstill.”
Q: Where was the site, given it’s in vehicle range?
A: “It’s 100-120km north-westish of Birdsville, not that far out, and not far from the station homestead. The services road used to run right through the centre of it. It’s funny that no-one noticed the ruins.”
Q: Was there a lot of air traffic and why had other aviators not spotted the site?
A: “Yes there’s a lot of aircraft around, but with the station properties you don’t know what to believe, maybe it was mistaken for relics of white settlers. But in our chopper luckily the ruins were on Bruce’s side and he spotted them and lo and behold, there it was.”
Q: Was he sure the ruins predated those of white settlers?
A: “I believe so, they are certainly before the white man’s time. There are a couple of others (settlements) like it, one is at Marion Downs on the way to Isa, near Boulia, and they are more complete. You realise when you see those villages they could not have been built in one or three months, they would have taken a long time to complete.”
He recalled his youth as a stockman and seeing similar ruins but without any curiosity, thinking wrongly that they were residues “from poor old settlers who died or left in hard times.”
The tricky bit, Rowlands said, was why the old people settled there, north-west of Birdsville. “It’s way out in the middle of nowhere and away from the river and its floods. Maybe they were trying to get away from the mosquitoes.”
Rowlands again insisted the ruins were nothing like white settlers’ work. The ruins comprised stones found everywhere on-site just under the surface, whereas Sir Sidney Kidman and other early settlers built their Western-style houses with different, quarried stone. “The site was really isolated in the horse era, and then only in good seasons. It’s still pretty isolated but there’s a road right to it.”
Asked if there were indeed three villages of about 30 dwellings each, he said, “Yes, mate,” and drew an odd analogy with the Deep South cotton plantations where the master had a big mansion but the slaves lived clustered in groups of little huts.
He said that although there were three ‘towns’ in close proximity, if he stood looking north, on his right-hand side and some 1km to 1.5km distant was another settlement. He didn’t have time to drive to it, but when Pascoe returns with a film crew “they’d take a little squizz at it.”
Were there still walls shoulder-high, as Pascoe said? Rowlands: “I’d say hip high.”
Did Don’s wife, Lyn, really find a stone miniature map-like creation on the ground? He wasn’t sure but would talk to Lyn about it – he did remember something to that effect.
Was the village well that Pascoe mentioned stone-lined in Western-fashion or just a soak? Rowlands said it could be what his group called mikiri from the Dreamtime. When I remarked that an unlined well would silt up, he said it could just be a spot where his people could have dug down to the shifting water table. “I don’t want to gate-crash on the native-well-heritage scene,” he added.
Asked how the 2019 helicopter trip came about, he vaguely recalled that Pascoe was with a group from Sydney who had come up to retrace the explorer Sturt’s journey to near Birdsville, and to investigate a gypsum artifact called a “widow’s cap”.
“So this is a world-shaking find?” I asked.
“Without knowing and just guessing, it is pretty exciting, and, yes, could well be a world famous find. But with the group, it’s still a bit tricky. We have to wait for that to settle down. We are trying to get all the information and knowledge about the area and region.” It appears that group members from the towns and cities are causing most of the ‘dramas’.
Rowlands’ position is to share maximum cultural information with the Australian community. “We need our story and our place in the country to be told, we deserve more recognition and inclusion, not [relegated] to the fringes but for the town centres,” he said.
Would getting a group approval take years? He hoped it could be as soon as 6-12 months if the internal ‘fight, fight, fight’ syndrome could be broken and elders’ cultural knowledge properly respected. Without that, and with mere grandstanding, everything about the ruins and history could be lost, with not a person on the planet aware. “That is just not right!” he said.
On a final note, this ruins controversy at the moment is all based on say-so. Pascoe has his aerial photograph of the site; wouldn’t it be OK for him to release it without disclosing its precise location? And the real test is archaeological evidence, not anyone’s say-so. I might de-debunk myself yet.
# # #
UPDATE: Sorry, everyone, I’ve been a bit of a drama queen, let’s settle down. The real question about Pascoe’s “world-shaking” site is actually, “So what?” It’s a large specimen of a common settlement out that way. Comparable stone settlements beside the Georgina River on Marion Downs near Boulia (as mentioned by Don Rowlands) were described in 1978 and 1989 and then mapped and analysed by Iain Davidson and seven other academics in 2016. This complex had 15 circular dry-stone huts of 5m diameter, with probable domed roofing of spinifex and mud-clothed boughs. Because the stones are rounded, the wall strength was poor.
As with Pascoe’s find, this complex had plenty of flakes and axe fragments but also rifle cartridge cases, glass and metal bits, with a suggestion of both pre- and post-colonial occupation. Some vestigial walls were 45cm high.
A track was graded through the middle of the 14,000squ metre complex without harming any ruins and possibly helping to preserve them by diverting traffic.
There are or were several similar complexes on Marion Downs. On nearby Glenormiston Station the same type of ruins has been seen during aerial mustering. The huts would have protected clans from summer rain and cold winter nights, especially as there are few caves or natural shelters or in some places even spots for stone-free sleeping comfort. The housing style was common across Australia where suitable timber was scarce, such as Lake Condah, Victoria (126 huts in clusters of 2-16), and “hundreds” on High Cliffy Island, Kimberley. Huts in the Dampier region have been tentatively dated to around 6000BC, but could be much more recent.
As for the Marion Downs huts, the authors’ dreadful conclusion (for Pascoe) is that better excavation could date the huts to post-colonial times. They could even have been built to mimic settlers’ or native police’s efforts: “As such they would represent another instance of the entanglement of European and Aboriginal material culture…”
Tony Thomas’s latest book from Connor Court is now available: Anthem of the Unwoke – Yep! The other lot’s gone bonkers. For a copy ($35 including postage), email email@example.com.
 An early Qld scholar WE Roth in 1897 observed that once Aborigines got hides, clothes and blankets, they invested less effort in sub-surface shelters, which were falling into disrepair.