Bennelong Papers

The Epicentre of Our History

When Julia Gillard was Minister for Education in the Rudd government in 2008 she appointed a committee to rewrite the national schools curriculum from primary school to year 10. When the curriculum’s compulsory Aboriginal content was published it became a controversial issue. The Coalition opposition under Tony Abbott called it “political correctness run riot” and a ”black armband” view of Australian history, saying it placed too much emphasis on indigenous perspectives and very little on the nation’s British and European political and cultural heritage.

Nonetheless, indigenous studies still remain a core concept within the national curriculum. The academics and bureaucrats responsible never gave up their objective to make it compulsory for all Australian schoolchildren. Today, much of the content set in place by Gillard is now being updated to accommodate the arrival of a new and far more radical set of ideas about traditional Aboriginal culture and society. This is largely the result of an acceptance within the education system of the book, Dark Emu, by the self-described indigenous author Bruce Pascoe.

Click here to order your copy of Bitter Harvest

The book’s central claim is that Australian Aborigines were not hunter-gatherers, as generations of anthropologists have labelled them: they were agriculturalists. Pascoe argues that, rather than being the most backward people on the planet, as ignorant Europeans have long thought, the Aborigines were among the most technologically and politically advanced societies of all time. He claims they were not nomads but lived in villages of stone houses and developed extensive and sustainable agriculture as well as sophisticated politics long before the rise of ancient Athens, Mesopotamia and Egypt. All this ended with the invasion by the British in 1788.

Pascoe has an explanation for the long-delayed failure of Australian anthropologists to recognise this. He says there was a conspiracy to suppress the information for political reasons. “Historical accounts of Aboriginal housing, farming and fishing were suppressed for most of the past 150 years,” he says. “The myth that Aborigines were simple nomads was per­petuated to justify white occupation.”

But now that he, an indigenous man, has come along and discovered the truth, everyone should see through the lies that justified white settlement. He has persuaded some influential backers that he is right. According to the judges of the New South Wales Premier’s awards for literature, all appointed by the State Library of NSW, Pascoe’s book shows that when the British first arrived Aboriginal people were:

living sophisticated lives [in an] Aboriginal democracy [that] created the “Great Australian Peace” on a continent which was extensively farmed, skilfully managed and deeply loved … Dark Emu reveals enormous Aboriginal achievement in governance and agriculture, and restores these to their rightful place at the epicentre of Australian history.

Originally published in 2014 by the indigenous publishing house, Magabala Books, Dark Emu was immediately shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing and for the History Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. In 2016, it became a best-seller after being named Book of the Year and winning the Indigenous Writers Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. In 2018, the Australia Council gave Pascoe its Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. 

Dark Emu is now being adopted as a text in high school courses around Australia. On the back of this acceptance, Pascoe has written Young Dark Emu, a text for primary school students. The ABC, whose education department has already published a website celebrating Pascoe and his book, will produce a whole television series in 2020 with Pascoe as presenter.

He is set to become one of Australia’s most commercially successful writers, a successor to the Western Australian Aboriginal author, Sally Morgan, whose 1987 book, My Place, told an essentially fictitious story about how her grandmother became a member of the “stolen generations”. By 2004, the inclu­sion of My Place as a compulsory text in the high school syllabus of most Australian states lifted its sales past 600,000 copies. Pascoe’s publishers say Dark Emu has already sold more than 100,000 copies, putting Morgan’s total well within his reach.

So when Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien contacted me earlier this year to report his misgivings about Pascoe’s book, and offered to review it, I readily agreed. O’Brien was familiar with the principal historical sources used by Pascoe, the diaries and journals of early Australian explorers Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell. O’Brien thought there was something fishy about the conclusions Pascoe derived from them.

O’Brien has now turned his review into a substantial 256-page book, Bitter Harvest: The illusion of Aboriginal agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, to be published this month by Quadrant Books and available from our website. It is a scholarly investigation of all the major claims Pascoe makes and whether they follow from the historical records he used.

O’Brien’s conclusions, outlined in his article in our upcoming December edition, are not flattering. Dark Emu is a book of “egregious deception” and “a rich ragout of grievance”.

“Almost every significant claim that Pascoe makes that is sourced, turns out to be either false or misrepresented.” O’Brien writes: “As purported history, Dark Emu is worthless. Even worse, it promotes a divisive, victim-based agenda that pits one Australian against another.”

Quadrant is not the only publisher to criticise Pascoe’s findings. At the same time O’Brien was working on his book, Melbourne history enthusiast Roger Karge attracted a group of concerned readers, many of them disillusioned former fans of Pascoe’s thesis, to contribute to the website Dark Emu Exposed. This group has a variety of people, some with doctorates, others dedicated amateurs, from backgrounds including journalism, teaching, authors, farming, fishing, nursing, ex-servicemen, an archaeologist, an artist, a historian, musicians, and people who work closely with the Aboriginal industry. Since last May, they have published twenty detailed blog-posts critical of Pascoe’s claims, calling them “willful manipulations, additions or omissions to slant the narrative and bolster his argument”.

The issue of Pascoe’s own Aboriginal background has also been subject to extensive research. Pascoe claims that he is an indigenous writer of mixed Bunorong, Yuin and Aboriginal Tasmanian (Palawa) heritage. However, Pascoe’s statements about himself are inconsistent, claiming in some interviews his Aboriginality comes from his father’s line, but in others from his mother’s grandmother, and in yet others from both sides of his family.

An associate of the Dark Emu Exposed group, the Perth retired author Jan Holland, has researched Pascoe’s family records and made a persuasive case that his ancestry is all white, indeed, all English, and that he is not an Aborigine at all. She backs her claim with a long and thorough genealogical study containing 5500 words of text plus 75 original documents she has published online. A professional genealogist within the group checked her work and confirmed it is accurate. It can all be found on the website Australian History – Truth Matters.

Holland’s genealogy traces the ancestral lines of Pascoe as far back as it needs to establish whether his Aboriginality is authentic or not. Once a line of descent comes to an English-born forbear, the genealogy goes no further, since the possibility of an Aboriginal heritage ends there. Here is Pascoe’s family lineage in these terms:


Bruce Pascoe. Born 11 October, 1947, Richmond Victoria

Ancestors on the paternal side of his family, and where born



Alfred Francis Pascoe 1916 – 1989. Victoria



Joseph Harold Pascoe 1891 – 1933. Victoria

Claudina Alice Palmer 1883 – 1967. Victoria



Francis Pascoe 1859 – 1935. Victoria

Elizabeth Jane Hall 1868 – 1952. Victoria

Alfred William Palmer 1870 – 1938. Tasmania

Rebecca Arnold 1870 – 1944. Tasmania



Francis Pascoe 1814 – 1864. Cornwall, England

Jane Hampton 1827 – 1875. Cornwall, England

John Hall 1832 – 1881. Northumberland, England

Elizabeth Law b. abt. 1841 Durham, England

Thomas Edward Palmer 1830 – 1906. Devon, England

*Alice Berry 1837 – 1861. Tasmania

William Arnold 1834 – 1914.  Dorset, England

*Emily Maria Berry 1846 – 1919 Tasmania



Joseph Berry 1811 – 1880. Lancashire, England

Sarah Wright 1819 – 1875. Suffolk, England

*Alice Berry and Emily Maria Berry are sisters – hence the same parents.

Ancestors on the maternal side of his family, and where born



Una Gloria Cowland Smith 1919 – ?. Victoria



John Smith 1864 – 1952. Leicestershire, England

Cecil Gertrude Cowland 1875 – 1963. Victoria



William Unwin Cowland 1824 – 1900. Essex, England

Sarah Matthews 1847 – 1879. Staffordshire, England

In short, there is no Aboriginal line of descent in any of Pascoe’s forebears. So it is not only his history that is bogus, but also his public biography. He should return his Indigenous Writers Prize and any other award given him for his claim to be an Aborigine. And he should apologise to his readers for deceiving them.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant. This column will appear in our December edition.



27 thoughts on “The Epicentre of Our History

  • brandee says:

    It was enlightening to see Keith interviewed on the Bolt Report tonight in which the role of what many conservatives see as the malignant ABC and other government bodies was exposed in this sorry tale of deception.

  • rod.stuart says:

    Australia’s very own Pocahontas!

  • rod.stuart says:

    Next he will be claiming he was fired when a school teacher because he was pregnant!

  • Wyndham Dix says:

    Repudiation, or to be generous, ignorance, of the Ninth Commandment; a malignancy of the times.

  • Stephen Due says:

    I suppose people are deceived because they are told the lies the want to hear. But it is a remarkably prevalent phenomenon.

  • MungoMann says:

    Don’t make jokes about Pocahontas ! – we are currently researching the claim by some that the WA Aboriginal Protector AO Neville is related to Pocahontas- oh the irony!!

  • Alistair says:

    The real tragedy that I see is that this thesis is the very antithesis of the traditional Aboriginal culture and is absolutely incompatible with traditional Aboriginal religion. The early settlers, missions, and government workers did their best to record and preserve traditional Aboriginal culture and languages – and are much criticised for it by those revisionists frantically fishing for whole new Aboriginal neo-cultures. The irony is that very people who claim to want to preserve traditional culture are the ones who are most prominently undermining and destroying it. First it was the “Noble Savage” myth we were supposed to swallow – and now its the Noble Farmer! . I think this “farming” narrative is very bad move for them – as I am sure that the “Noble Savage” myth had way more political appeal with the Greens-Soviet as a model communal egalitarian society , but maybe Aboriginal communal “farming” in the style of the Ukrainian collective may work?

  • Tony Tea says:

    Is there any archaeological evidence of Pascoe’s stone villages?

  • rosross says:

    It is good to see the searing light of truth shone on the tellers of tale tales like Pascoe. Well done to all those involved in the long process of hard work.

  • Alistair says:

    What really irritates me about this is the similarity with the Michael Mann – Hockey stick fraud. A whole crowd of Meteorologists and Climate Scientists who had spent their whole careers researching the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice age simply bit their tongues and stayed silent as all their research and data was inconveniently wiped away. To say anything would be to risk funding. Now here we are – some crazy loon publishes a book that contradicts 200 years of data and research, and the profession anthropological clique are silent almost to a man. This is how a consensus is manufactured in plain view – one person says something and no professional dares contradict him. Its not peer review its peer pressure. I might add that no Aborigine appears to want to contradict him either. That says a lot about their understanding of traditional culture.

  • Alistair says:

    Relayed from Joe Lane
    Are there farming stories, legends, rituals, dances, songs anywhere in Australia ? I don’t know of any. Are there and hunting/gathering stories, legends, rituals, dances, songs anywhere in Australia ? Yes, plenty, in every group across Australia which still has any traditional knowledge. So traditional knowledge means ‘hunting/gathering stories, legends, rituals, dances, songs everywhere across Australia. Of course, one would expect some references to something like ‘farming’ amongst groups along the north coast who were in touch with outsiders. Are there any at all ?
    Is there any evidence at all that whitefellas destroyed (and somehow hid) any evidence of villages, storage pits, fences, etc.: maybe some university’s archaeological department could stake out a likely site and examine it. Who knows what they may find. Or not find. Still, no evidence is, after all, no evidence. He who asserts must demonstrate.
    So we are supposed to rely on Major Mitchell’s accounts, creatively interpreted, but not on any of the innumerable accounts, often over many years by on-site observers, over the last two hundred years in every corner of Australia ?
    What is mind-boggling is how easy it is to hoodwink normally-intelligent people, with basically no evidence and against what they’ve already learnt from school or from their reading – anybody with experience knows it’s a crock.

  • brandee says:

    Notice how the new $50 note is different to the old one?
    David Unaipon’s declaration “I am a full blooded member of my race. etc.” is now omitted from the new note.
    More aboriginal revisionism!

  • deric davidson says:

    Surely in this day and age I’m allowed to be anything I want to be!. I can identify with any race, ethnicity, gender etc etc! I have the right!! This is now our culture – it allows me to be a liar and a lunatic. The F word not accepted by the left is spelled FACTS!

  • Tony Thomas says:

    Keith writes, “Pascoe argues that, rather than being the most backward people on the planet, as ignorant Europeans have long thought, the Aborigines were among the most technologically and politically advanced societies of all time.”
    One finds frequent references to Aboriginal culture as “backward” and “Stone Age”. I learnt long ago (Anthropology 11, UWA, ca 1961) that despite a low-tech culture, the traditional groups had social/kinship rules and aesthetics (e.g.long poetic narrations) of immense complexity. Hence there is no dispute that such groups equal any Western group in complex living systems. Instead of ramming this point home, Pascoe seems to be grabbing the bull by the tail, emphasising their (purported) farming technology.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    What apparently drove the development of metallurgy in the Ancient World was the need to defend villages, and more specifically, granaries from plunder by outsiders. First native copper was used, which became bronze: copper hardened by the addition of tin. A huge step was taken when smelting of iron ore was developed: involving ‘roast and reduce’ techniques at high temperature.
    Iron (later steel) made excellent weapons, but also excellent ploughshares, scythes, sickles and other harvesting equipment.
    A complex interplay was involved there between the technologies of farming and of war, which might start out as defensive but become offensive.
    To my knowledge, although Aborigines gathered grass seeds, they had no domesticable grains. Nor have any been found and developed by post-1788 settler agriculturalists. This I think is because there are so few domesticable grasses in the world: wheat, oats, rice, maize, rye… the list is short. Australian grasses are not on it.
    Australia has only one domesticated plant: the macadamia nut. I am not aware of any granaries built for storage of these.
    The Aborigines were mainly nomads. Some built fish traps and dwellings from natural rocks. Metals would have given them far more, but they never developed metal technology. Not even of native gold, lying around on the surface of the ground, which gave rise to the great 1850s gold rush.
    But they did have some fearsome wooden weapons, specifically designed for skirmishes with fellow Aborigines rather than for hunting animals: like spear heads with forward barbs pointing back, and rearward barbs pointing forwards, making them hard to remove from a wound.
    But they took hunter-gathering about as far as it could go.

  • Alistair says:

    Tony – You are of course right – and wrong at the same time. Professor Frazer in the Golden Bough makes the distinction between Magic and Religion. Magic being largely superseded by Religion. By his definition (Aborigines lack a superior being) and hence had not developed Religion. However they had developed magical beliefs to the highest level of complexity. Therefore being Mesolithic in their “religious” belief system (and also their technology) they qualify both as “backward” and “advanced” at the same time!

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    Is Pascoe’s tome part of the campaign of indoctrination for an indigenous voice to Parliament and a claim to the Constitution? Those of us who grimace at an aboriginal flag flying over all our public buildings, watch landmarks increasingly declared off-limits in respect to stone-age myths, or suffer insulting reminders of original ownership by fake “nations” as a preface to every function, may see a political attempt to take back the country. We might reflect on what a mighty country Australia could have been had the aborigines evolved over their 40, 50, 60,000 years in creativity and civilising development – as did their brothers in Africa and Europe. There was no agriculture; there were millenia of marching on the spot. It could be argued the aborigines let this country down by standing still; now they claim special status and recognition. Is $33 billion not enough?

  • brandee says:

    Well said Geoffrey.
    Ian Mac said much of value in twice the space but a short and descriptive picture of aboriginal culture marching on the spot is in the simple observation: they couldn’t boil water!

  • johnhenry says:

    We have our own version of Pascoe here in Canada, an Englishman by the name of Archibald Belaney, who passed himself off for years as an Apache by the name of “Grey Owl” in the 1930s. In fact, my father knew him personally and (to my knowledge) never suspected.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Nineteenth Century anthropologists identified three ethnically/racially distinct Aboriginal subgroups: Tasmanians, Murrayans and Carpentarians. They all arrived separately, to a continent that was at first sea-to-shining-sea with Tasmanians. Then the Murrayans’ ancestors moved in and pushed the Tasmanians south; a bit like the case of the Terra del Fuegians in South America. The last in were the Carpentarians, taller and more ‘gracile’ or slender than the Murrayans, and they in turn pushed the Murrayans south, which is where the incoming Europeans found them: along the Murray Valley.
    The fact that these three distinct racial/ethnic groups survived distinct and intact shows that there was not much interbreeding between them.
    The actor David Gulpilil IMHO would be a Carpentarian.
    Certainly today Carpentarians are the only ‘full-bloods’ left. (I once met David Gulpilil and he told me himself that he was a ‘full-blood’.)
    So whenever homage is paid to ‘original inhabitants’, I always think of the original Tasmanians, who got pushed at spear-point into Tasmania before the Pleistocene ice melted and the Bass Strait rose, cutting them off completely.
    After that, they might just as well have been on the Moon.
    brandee: “Ian Mac said much of value in twice the space….” Sorry, but I was away from school the day we had brevity.

  • Peter OBrien says:


    Yes I firmly believe ‘Dark Emu’ is part of a push for constitutional recognition, largely facilitated by the ABC, as I argue in a post that will hopefully be published in a day or so. I also put the same proposition in my book ‘Bitter Harvest’ which will be available in December.

  • Andrew Campbell says:

    Living in the bush means that to protect our small orchard from roos we have to surround it with a 2 metre chain link fence; and to protect the fruit from parrots, cover it with netting. During this drought any food tree not so protected has been stripped bare by roos. Indigenous farming in Australia would have suffered the same problems. It would simply have provided for more roos and cockatoos. Imagine the work to build a 2 metre timber fence around only 5 acres! The roos, especially with a drought (when you need the food even more) would have a feast. And the parrots. And the possums. And the wombats …

  • john.singer says:

    Dark Emu is a collection, no a string of postulations, each as improbable as the next – based more on idolatry than fact.

  • GRAHAM WYE says:

    Looking forward to Volume 2 where Pascoe gives details of the aboriginal use of nuclear medicine, nano technology and their advanced space program.

  • wstarck says:

    Unbelievable, as in being contrary to reason and utterly without evidence. Even more unbelievable is this being being seen fit to be incorporated into the school curriculum of a modern nation. This whole thing deserves a formal investigation. For a start, there is undeniable evidence of a massive fraud at the level of grand larceny. In addition there is the matter of such patently blatant nonsense being incorporated into the school curriculum apparently without any critical assessment. Whoever made this decision and under whatever authority, it smacks of gross malfeasance.

    That this has been implemented on a grand scale and the Dark Emu book has received fulsome acceptance with multiple prizes and awards without any apparent dissent from the anthropological community is also an astounding indication of a total abandonment of fundamental scientific standards in that discipline.

    To not firmly apply the law against fraud in this instance must be to simply abandon the rule of law in favor of political correctness.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    But he is 1% Neanderthal and I think it shows.

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