Bennelong Papers

The Academic Abetment of Bruce Pascoe’s Travesty

In his Dark Emu, Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture, and many public performances — “a dedicated storyteller in the old style”, as ANU historian Professor Tom Griffiths of ANU describes him —  Bruce Pascoe argues that generations of Australians have been duped by their history books. The true history of pre-colonial Australia has been hidden for more than 150 years to perpetuate the myth that Aborigines were simple nomads in order to justify white occupation. The truth, according to Pascoe, is that Aborigines cultivated crops, built large villages and devised sophisticated dams and aquaculture systems. They were agriculturalists with skills superior to those of the white colonisers who took their land and despoiled it, or so the much-lauded and rewarded author would have readers believe.

Order Bitter Harvest here

Pascoe engaged in no original research for Dark Emu, at least in any scholarly sense, and it seems that holding preconceived notions about Aboriginal society, he cherry-picked corroborative evidence. As he explicitly acknowledges, he has drawn very heavily on Rupert Gerritsen’s revisionist Australia and the Origins of Agriculture (2008). His other main secondary source is Bill Gammage’s major study, The Biggest Estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia, though Gammage (p.281) insisted

People farmed in 1788, but were not farmers … people never depended on farming. Mobility was more important…

Gammage provides a mountain of evidence on farming and land management, and goes into the difficulties of applying conventional categories to Aboriginal practices. Pascoe simply employs the material as evidence of agriculture to rewrite pre-history. Agriculture is not an entry in Gammage’s comprehensive index.

Presented as original evidence, Pascoe makes extensive and selective — indeed, misleading — use of the journals of explorers Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell (see below). In Dark Emu, he makes several references to the work of Professor W.E.H. Stanner, one of Australia’s leading anthropologists who worked intimately with Aborigines, and that is bizarre. In The Dreaming and Other Essays, Stanner characterises Aborigines as:

They are, of course, nomads- hunters and foragers who grow nothing, build nothing, and stay nowhere long…

And finally, on Pascoe’s sources: any genuine researcher would have consulted the extensive range of diaries and accounts by missionaries and others who lived among Aborigines. Perhaps he didn’t because they do not provide supporting evidence.

Dark Emu reveals no inkling of the complexities of the debates over the categories of ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘agriculturalist’ — a point made by Harry Lourandos in his Australian Archeological Association review of Dark Emu. Particularly in local instances, like the extraordinarily elaborate fish and eel trap systems, differences between hunter-gatherers and cultivators, and foragers and farmers, are blurred. Pascoe tramples on the complexity; and he also fudges the critical issue of the great diversity in culture and technology across the continent, to falsely conflate the local with the continent-wide, one of the cardinal sins in historiography.

Pascoe has taken commonplace facts of pre–history (like harvesting of native grass seeds and digging yams), to put a spin on them, to argue that Aborigines were not  just hunter-gatherers, but practised agriculture. His story is littered with unsupported assertions, misrepresentations, and sleights of hand: grass seeds become “grain”, for instance. He asserts that a “grain cultivated and harvested by Aboriginal people was rice” (p.42). Of course, native rice was harvested, but he provides no evidence it was “cultivated”. Except for representing fish traps as aquaculture he makes no claim Aborigines practised animal husbandry. He simply ignores the fact that this was a key development in the transition to a sedentary society.

Gerritsen’s revisionist position was given short shrift by specialist scholars but skilfully repackaged for a popular readership by a professional writer, Dark Emu has achieved remarkable sales (the five-year-old book, in its 28th printing sold 115,300 copies in 2019).  It has won a string of awards, and the ABC and Screen Australia have provided funding for a documentary series written by Pascoe. According to the head of ABC Indigenous, Kelrick Martin, the book “offers a revelatory context for future generations of Australians and ABC Indigenous is proud to work alongside Bruce Pascoe…to correct these stereotypes”. A version for “young readers”, Young Dark Emu – A Truer History, Magabala Books, is being distributed to school children, along with Simone Barlow and Ashlee Horyniak, Dark Emu in the Classroom: Teacher Resources for High School Geography.

Gerritsen “languished in obscurity”, so why has Pascoe’s book become a best-seller, accorded the status of “our most influential indigenous historian”? Dark Emu and its author are at the centre of unprecedented controversy that demands close critical scrutiny of the book before it becomes entrenched as the authoritative pre-history of Australia in schools, universities and museums, a process well advanced.

Pascoe’s claiming Aboriginal ancestors on both sides of his family has boosted his credibility as an historian. Challenges to this claim sparking acrimonous exchanges have proved something of a distraction from Dark Emu. It is published by the heavily subsidised Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation whose stated objective is, “restoring, preserving and maintaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures”. It is legitimate to ask whether it requires the peer reviewing demanded by scholarly publications.

The standard textbooks on the pre-history of Australia were the culmination of many decades of rigorous field work and scholarship by archaeologists and anthropologists of international stature, including John Mulvaney, Isabelle McBryde and Rhys Jones. But now, according to Pascoe, a conspiracy by professional historians has hidden the truth about Aboriginal society which he (Pascoe) has now uncovered. Bruce Pascoe (Bachelor of Education) a professional writer of literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays and children’s literature is Professor, Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney. Mulvaney, McBryde and Jones are not listed in the inflated 16-page bibliography of Dark Emu.

In this era of Fake News, it is the responsibility of university scholars, or at least specialists, to evaluate the veracity of Dark Emu; but they are “missing in action”. If not affronted by gratuitous insults, it beggars belief for academics to ignore such hyperbole as, “Of all the systems humans have devised to manage their lives on earth, Aboriginal government looks most like the democratic model” (p.187 ), when Aboriginal society was marked by violence, infanticide, and the marriage of pre-pubescent girls to old men.

Professor Lynette Russell AM, Director of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, is referred to as a leader in the history profession who has the reputation for making a significant contribution to Australian Indigenous history. Professor Russell is

…very keen to see as many students as possible undertake Aboriginal studies units … People need to understand what it means to be living in a continent that had over 600 different tribal groups and 250 different languages.

But blindness to the diversity of academic perspective, which renders Dark Emu worthless as a history text, has not deterred Ms Russell’s enthusiasm, telling The Australian she is “a big fan of the book because it’s had such a huge impact” and “What Bruce has done is trawl the records and found fantastically rich and useful material.” She admires Dark Emu’s achievement in popularising ideas that challenge European Australians’ cultural preconceptions, declaring Pascoe’s fancies have promulgated “information about indigenous land-management practices that archaeologists have known for a long time”.

But a little probing reveals that Professor Russell subscribes to a major thrust of Dark Emu. ‘s conspiracy theory. As supporting evidence, Pascoe (pp. 132-3, 156, 221) provides extracts from the  publications of Russell and Professor Ian McNiven, of Monash University‘s Indigenous Studies Centre, which includes inter alia,

Archaeologists and prehistorians constructed the archaeological record … to find scientific support to legitimize colonial dispossession of Aboriginal lands and to delegitimize contemporary Aboriginal claims to Native Title rights.

On page 221, Pascoe goes on to make the assertion (with no source cited) which surely would be shocking even to his most uncritical supporters,

The urge to legitimise occupation is compared by McNiven and Hull to the warping of history and archaeology by Nazis to justify the extermination of the Jews

Promoted as one of Australia’s most respected Indigenous academics (“a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations”), Professor Marcia Langton AM is an anthropologist and geographer, and since 2000 has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has weighed into the controversy about Dark Emu, elevating it to “the most important book on Australia”. Emeritus Professor of History, ANU, Tom Griffiths expresses “admiration for the sheer bravura of a man on a mission”, and though conceding it has blemishes, he still hails Dark Emu as a work that “has inspired and empowered … I am grateful for a book that has so enlightened the engagement of Australians with their country’s history”.

Bill Gammage, whose The Biggest Estate on Earth was used as a source for Dark Emu, is reported as praising Pascoe’s storytelling gift of weaving a narrative that challenges many readers’ preconceptions, but he also adds that Pascoe sometimes romanticises pre-contact Indigenous society, and gently suggests that claims Stone Age Indigenous people invented democracy and baking may be “push[ing] these things too far”.

The Conversation has appropriated the role of outlet for university research, though in practice, it refuses publication of any opinion that does not conform strictly to PC– it would censor any adverse comment on Dark Emu.  Typically, in a June 15, 2018, essay, Tony Hughes D’Aeth (Associate Professor, English and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia) asserts that Pascoe is “a rigorous and exacting judge of the historical record … assembles a persuasive case that Indigenous Australians … led the kind of sedentary agricultural lives that were meant only to have arrived with Europeans in 1788”. The Australia Council in March 2018 presented Pascoe with the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The arts wallahs made the assessment that,

Bruce Pascoe’s award-winning non-fiction book Dark Emu, published in 2014, is a monumental work of scholarship that disproved the long-held myth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were nomadic hunter gatherers before European colonisation.

There has been some critical comment, but that has been negated by the accompanying fulsome praise. No specialists, “insist that Australian Aboriginal people were nothing more than simple hunter-gatherers” (as alleged by Pascoe p.86); and academics’ criticism of Dark Emu has been of Pascoe’s claim that academics have suppressed historical accounts about Aboriginal peoples’ housing, farming and cultivation practices. Professor Peter Hiscock, chair of archaeology at Sydney University, Harry Lourandos, adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, James Cook University, and Professor McNiven have protested that there was already a large body of published work on the topic. To Professor Hiscock the claim is

ridiculous… The literature on this subject is massive…so the assertion that it is ignored or hidden does not reflect the reality of the disciplines; it must reflect the political mindset of Pascoe.

Nevertheless, in public statements, critics enthused over the book’s success in reaching the general public (see articles in The Australian, 25 May, 8 September 2019). At the same time, after canvassing opinions, the journalist Richard Guilliatt, writing in the Weekend Australian Magazine of May 25, 2019, found that critics were reluctant to air their views publicly, given the sensitivity of contradicting a popular indigenous historian. It has fallen to retired military officer Peter O’Brien to make a forensic analysis and catalogue page after page of examples of how Pascoe misrepresents the observations recorded in explorers’ journals. In Bitter Harvest. The illusion of Aboriginal agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu , the Quadrant contributor and enthusiast for the diaries of Australian explorers concludes that Dark Emu is a book of “egregious deception”, and worthless.

His book weighs into the current controversy to oppose Dark Emu’s political message. Its true purpose, O’Brien argues, is to promote the idea that the colonisation of Australia was illegal because it was imposed upon an advanced and sedentary agricultural economy; and this notion would be a useful fillip to any campaign to entrench a form of Aboriginal sovereignty. In contrast to the uncritical, extensive acclaim accorded Dark Emu, the mainstream press has largely ignored Bitter Harvest while the ABC has spurned it entirely.

The prominent indigenous activist, Jacinta Price, has questioned both Pascoe’s assertions of Aboriginality and his claims that Aborigines were not hunter-gatherers. The Yolngu of Arnhem Land have joined other Aboriginal groups in denouncing Bruce Pascoe’s assertions that Aborigines were settled farmers, living in “towns” of “1000 people”. Elder Terry Yumbulul has protested: “There are no ancient creation stories in our heritage about Aboriginal settlements and there is no evidence of it in our art, languages or songlines…”

The uncritical acclaim for Bruce Pascoe and Dark Emu is in the setting of the success of urban activists in transforming the Aboriginal cause, which now involves ‘First Nations peoples’ struggle for justice and restitution’. And this is in a milieu marked by the aggressive dominance of PC and identity politics that brands any sceptics as racists, with the faux left in the vanguard through Overland, Meanjin, Griffith Review, Arena and The Monthly. Pascoe has tapped a receptive audience and readership, those who believe he is doing a good job promoting a positive perception of indigenous people who have endured such extreme suffering and discrimination after invasion and dispossession. And in today’s troubled world he feeds that sympathy with the contrasting Aboriginal Australia as

a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity ( p.183) … [A]cross cultural and geographic boundaries … cooperation was wrought without resort to the physical coercion and war common in other civilisations (p.184)

Sympathy for the indigenous cause prevails among university students and staff. Accommodating the distorting strictures of identity politics has profoundly compromised universities as institutions devoted to excellence in scholarship and the search for truth. The dismal response of academe to Dark Emu goes hand in hand with the proliferation of professors and lecturers and courses in Indigenous Studies. However worthy a cause, it cannot be constructed on dubious foundations; and its inevitable collapse will be detrimental to the cause. Worse, Pascoe provides the evidence for racists who denigrate Aborigines as “primitive” as they could not invent the wheel and pottery; which could be a fair conclusion, if they were an agricultural, sedentary society which had to store grain or meat from farmed animals. But they were hunter-gathers who had no use for them; on the contrary, women on the move had to dispense with any encumbrances, with dilly bags and coolamons quite adequate for their purpose. Similarly, the violence (often over women) and the marriage of pre-pubescent girls to old men, while abhorrent today, are understandable in tribes confined to certain territory whose existence depended on safeguarding resources, and women were indispensable economic units.

At least by implication, Pascoe denigrates hunter- gatherers, and this hinders an appreciation of the achievements of Aborigines in an old and dry continent with limited natural resources. As Geoffrey Blainey concludes in The Triumph of the Nomads (p.225): a comparison of standards of living would show that, “the average Aboriginal was probably as well off as the average European in 1800”. They certainly had more leisure time. And Stanner observes

Their [the Aborigine’s] tools and crafts, meagre — pitiably meagre — though they are, have nonetheless been good enough to let them win the battle for survival, and to win it comfortably at that. With no pottery, no knowledge of metals, no wheel, no domestication of animals, no agriculture, they have still been able to people the entire continent… The Dreaming and Other Essays (pp. 234-235).

The ideological purpose that runs through Dark Emu is made explicit on p.183:

Arguing over whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gatherer system or one of burgeoning agriculture is not the central issue … The belief that Aboriginal people were ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession. Every Land Rights application hinges on the idea that … the Indigenous population did not own or use the land.

Bruce Pascoe with Dark Emu is a partisan in the controversies and debates that are raging over campaigns waged by indigenous activists and movements for sovereignty and self determination, and demands for land rights, constitutional amendments, and a “First Nations Voice”. Activists insist that indigenous people never ceded their sovereignty; and recognition of Indigenous sovereignty would raise fundamental and unresolved questions about the legitimacy of British occupation of the continent and claims to sovereignty over it.

Reconciliation can come only by way of the truth, not partisanship, which thrusts a heavy responsibility on academics — a responsibility that, so far, has been largely avoided.

Les Louis, who lives in Canberra, is a retired academic

8 comments
  • Blair

    “Bruce Pascoe’s award-winning non-fiction book Dark Emu, published in 2014, is a monumental work of scholarship that disproved the long-held myth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were nomadic hunter gatherers before European colonisation”.
    Torres Strait Islanders lived in villages on small islands, cultivated crops, raised pigs, and harvested seafood eg turtles, dugongs and fish and built canoes and hunting platforms, Admittedly, pre-Coming of the Light some were head hunters.

  • ianl

    Reconciliation is *not* the aim.
    Reparations … the High Court, when finally given carte blanche, will gleefully rule: YES.

  • DG

    If fish traps are aquaculture, then I’m a major dam builder on the basis of my childhood mud dams in my parent’s back yard.

  • thegranthiggins

    Some of the best fun to be had is visiting a bookstore, then discreetly gathering up all copies of “Dark Emu” then moving them to where they belong: in the Fiction section.

  • Doubting Thomas

    ianl, we’re already there. Today’s High Court decision, finding that foreign-born convicted criminals could not be deported because a smidgin of Australian Aboriginal blood in their ancestry means that they cannot be aliens, presumably in terms of the relevant legislation, determines that they must therefore be Australian citizens. This outrageous nonsense would not even pass a pub test in Alice Springs.

  • lhackett01

    Peter O’Brien’s book, “Bitter Harvest” validated my own research into Pascoe’s claims. Having previously read the journals of Mitchell and Sturt, I concluded readily that Pascoe had misunderstood and/or misinterpreted the facts as stated in those journals. There is no evidence that aborigines were other than hunter-gatherers.

    Paccoe’s book, the very recent ruling by the High Court that aborigines hold a special and privileged place in Australian society and cannot be deported even if born overseas, and the distorted propaganda being taught in Australian schools about the suggested illegal occupation of Australia by the British in 1788, are all part of the drive towards aboriginal treaties and sovereignty.

    Cook was right to plant the British flag in 1770 and Australia was settled legally in 1788 all according to international law and practice at the time. Altering the law to suit today’s “black armband” mindset does not change the facts of the time. Read, for example, https://www.alrc.gov.au/publication/recognition-of-aboriginal-customary-laws-alrc-report-31/5-recognition-of-aboriginal-customary-laws-at-common-law-the-settled-colony-debate/the-settled-colony-debate/.

  • Peter OBrien

    Les,

    thank you for a very insightful and incisive article.

  • john.singer

    I had prepared a long response but it got lost in the posting so here is a brief synopsis.
    I have been disturbed by “Dark Emu” for some time and that its fanciful information is being taught to our children as fact.
    Pascoe claims to have relied heavily on Gerristen and I found that odd, because I had read some of Gerristen’s work on 17th Century shipwrecks on the Western Australian seacoast and had little doubt about his research ability and integrity. Despite Gerristen’s sympathy for the Australian Aboriginal. This is made very clear in the opening paragraph of his unpublished paper “Factors Influencing the Adoption of Indigenous Agriculture in Australia “ which states:
    “Human history is littered with examples of contact between peoples from divergent cultural traditions. Some of these interactions have been positive and productive for all concerned. Many others have been disastrous for one party or the other. We need look no further than the catastrophe experienced by Aboriginal peoples in Australia since the commencement of British colonisation in 1788 to see the truth in the latter statement. I do not intend, however, to dwell on this sad aspect of Australian history but instead consider two examples where seemingly productive interactions have taken place in the past between indigenous Australians and people of non-indigenous origin. By this means I hope to be able to elucidate some of the factors affecting cultural transfers, and inter-cultural relations, principally in the economic realm.”
    Despite this sympathy he compares the Hutt River Area of Western Australia with the Arnhem Land and Kimberley Region. In Western Australia the local Nhanda Tribes may have acquired some agricultural and house building techniques from two Dutchmen (Mutineers from the “Batavia”) marooned there in 1629 more than 200 years before British settlement at Swan River. He contrasts this with the Arnhem land and Kimberley regions where free trade flourished between the Makassans of Sulawesi and the local Natives. This trade existed for at least 100 years before Mathew Flinders landed in the area. Here the Natives only appropriated the technology of dugout canoes with sales and some Makassan words and not the agriculture of the planting of seasonal crops which the Makassans needed for their subsistence. Gerristen also suggests that some Australian Aboriginals sailed with them to Sulawesi perhaps a century before Bennelong.
    What Gerristen suggests is that some Aboriginal tribes selectively appropriated observed “technology” and “custom” where others did not. This may explain some of the observations of explorers, decades after settlement, which conflicted with observations made closer to the date of settlement.
    I am appalled by the blind acceptance of “Dark Emu” without even rudimentary research by people who should know better.

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