Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is a game-changer. Not just as an academic assessment of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu but as part of a wider political discourse. Sutton and Walshe are leaders in their respective fields of anthropology and archaeology. Importantly, they are not politically conservative, which what makes their critique of Pascoe’s work all the more far-reaching.
Significantly, Sutton and Walshe describe Pascoe’s work as being so ‘simplistic’ that ‘…the message serves only to seriously mislead secondary students exposed to this material’. In their professional opinion, ‘This teaching resource book should be withdrawn by any educational authority currently using it, and rewritten.’
What follows is a ten-point summary as to the most salient criticisms of Dark Emu that Sutton and Walshe make and hence, why their scholarly judgment should be heeded by all government educational departments.
First, the resurrection of social evolutionism. For those on the Left—such as Sutton and Walshe—this is probably the most stinging criticism of them all since it is essentially racist. While Pascoe himself rejects that he does this, the language which he goes on to use betrays what he really believes. As Sutton and Walshe write:
Pascoe’s approach appears to resemble the old Eurocentric view held by the British conquerors of Aboriginal society. Those were the people who organised mass theft of Aboriginal country and many of whom justified the killing of people who resisted them, really out of greed and indifference, but often under an ideological flag of social evolutionism. They assumed they had a right to profit from the ‘survival of the fittest’ and were the ‘superior race’. The ‘less advanced’ had to make way for the ‘more advanced’. Pascoe risks taking us back to that fatal shore by resurrecting the interpretation of differing levels of complexity and differing extents of intervention in the environment as degrees of advancement and evolution and cleverness and sophistication’.
Second, the absence of Aboriginal words for farming. Sutton rightly observes that, “Culture is to a very significant degree reflected in language”. Hence, if Aboriginal peoples had been engaged in farming practices then there would be evidence in their language for it. But as Sutton says:
I have consulted dictionaries of around forty Aboriginal languages looking for words glossed as ‘farm’, ‘farmer’, ‘to farm’, ‘garden,’ to sow’, ‘hoe’, ‘crop’, ‘to plant’, ‘weed’, and ‘to plough’. Almost invariably there are no such terms.
As if that were not as conclusive enough, Sutton exposes Pascoe’s linguistic ignorance in the following paragraph. The criticism is devastating:
Almost the only venture into language in Dark Emu is this: ‘It seems even the name of Lake Killapaninna [sic: Killalpaninna] has within it a word for the harvest grass variously spelt pannana or parrara. The evidence, while now difficult to find on the surface of the land, is still embedded in the language (page 47). Killalpaninna (more accurately Kirlawirlpanhinha) actually translates from the original Diyari not as ‘harvest grass’ but as ‘In the Vagina’, a name arising from the site’s sacred mythology according to the highly trained linguist Peter Austin, who wrote a study of the language of the Diyari people whose country includes Lake Killalpaninna. Pascoe describes his own etymology here as ‘evidence’. The actual and contrary facts, however, appeared in a published paper by Austin twenty-eight years before Pascoe’s appeared.
Third, extremely poor research methods. While Dark Emu has received a plethora of awards, including being incorporated into school curricula, Sutton and Walshe argue that it is basically untrustworthy. Indeed, the authors eviscerate Pascoe’s work as follows:
…it is littered with unsourced material. It is poorly researched. It distorts and exaggerates many old sources. It selects evidence to suit the author’s opinions, and it ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions. It contains a large number of factual errors, a range of which we analyse here. Others we could not include for want of space.
Fourth, Pascoe completely misunderstands the current legal practice as how land rights are granted. As Sutton explains:
Perhaps the most reckless assertion in Dark Emu, one easily falsifiable by anyone with a library card or a computer, is this:
Every Land Rights applications hinges on the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did nothing more than collect available resources and therefore had no managed interaction with the land; that is, the Indigenous population did not own or use the land. [page 129]
…Pascoe here has the facts completely inverted. Australian land claim applications are based on evidence of traditional land tenure systems and managed resource use systems and their modern descendants. These were and are systems of incredible complexity; and constitute one of the main pillars of Aboriginal Law. Native title and other land rights regimes are an attempt to respect that Law, albeit too late for some applicants to have their wishes met.
Fifth, an over-reliance on the reports European explorers. One of the most damning criticisms Sutton and Walshe make is that,
Pascoe has concentrated more on historical sources, especially explorer’s journals, than on the evidence of Aboriginal people who have traditional knowledge. In fact, there is almost no evidence in Dark Emu that he has asked Indigenous elders about their Old People’s economic practices.
What’s more, they go on to say,
Nor does Dark Emu draw significantly on works by specialist scholars who have studied Aboriginal traditional economics and material culture under senior Indigenous expert mentoring, often through a lifetime.
Sutton and Walshe proceed to explain why relying on the journals of European explorers is so problematic:
…Pascoe’s heavy reliance on explorers journals is reliance on the evidence of those who encountered classical Aboriginal Australia only transiently at each location, and typically without any language in common with those they met. They were also the vanguard field agents of Aboriginal dispossession during the predatory expansion of the agrarian society of the British. They were men who were anxious to be able to map and report valuable future pastoral and agricultural environments back to Sydney and London. They were the forward scouts for the army of land-hungry farmers who would come in their wake. Waving fields of grass and stacks of seed-bearing stems, real as they were, could be easily read from a European standpoint as meadows in waiting, full of promise for the coming wave of agricultural usurpers.
Regarding the category of ‘specialist scholars’, Sutton and Walshe refer to the work of Dr Ian Keen of the Australian National University, ‘whose 2004 book is a thoroughly researched study of multiple regional Aboriginal economics on the threshold of conquest by the British Empire. He describes a rich array of cultural and economic practices, but does not find that mainland Indigenous Australians practiced agriculture or gardening’. By the way, an excellent scholarly critique of Dark Emu by Dr Keen can be read here.
Sixth, Pascoe often misrepresents the academic sources he does quote from. For example, Sutton and Walshe state:
Pascoe links gardening and cropping to the settled life—that is, to what is sometimes called sedentism. Given the extent to which Dark Emu owes a debt to the work of Bill Gammage, it is unfortunate that Pascoe effectively rejects him on the question of sedentism. Gammage said:
Neither in Australia’s richest nor poorest parts, by European standards, were people tempted to settle. Instead they quite their villages and eels, their crops and stores and templates, to walk their country.
They were mobile. No livestock, no beast of burden anchored them. They did not stay in their houses or by their crops.
At this point, Sutton overlooks Peter O’Brien’s invaluable contribution, Bitter Harvest (Quadrant, 2019), dismissing it is ‘a pugnacious polemical assessment of Dark Emu’ which consults ‘extremely few anthropologists or archaeologists’ (page 220, footnote 47). What’s more, this curt assessment is somewhat unfair to the author in question, since O’Brien has never claimed to be an ‘expert’ on Aboriginal culture, but rather an ‘auditor’ of the sources Pascoe himself claimed proved his case. As O’Brien wrote in The Spectator Australia:
…I have repeatedly stated that, in writing Bitter Harvest, I did not set out to prove Aborigines were hunter/gatherers, nor to prove that they were not agriculturalists, nor to position Aboriginal society in any particular way in between. I set out to demonstrate that Pascoe had failed to prove his own thesis. In doing so, I, of course, relied principally on the sources that Pascoe cited. Pascoe’s shtick was that his theory was buttressed by the journals of the early explorers and settlers and so my modus operandi was to check those same references. As I have also said, I saw my role simply as an auditor. And my audit came to the same conclusion as Drs Sutton and Walshe, albeit 18 months earlier than they did — that Dark Emu is a complete fraud.
Seventh, rejection of testimony from European castaways. Following on from the previous point, Pascoe not only relies on—a misrepresentation—of the journals of early European explorers but shows ‘little or no reliance on the evidence of those who lived on the Aboriginal side of the frontier for months on end, learning from the traditional owners of the lands they lived in and learning local languages’. What’s more,
There is also almost no reliance in Dark Emu on those early castaways who lived inside Australian Indigenous societies and operated in local languages, for years on end, as in the case of William Buckley (32 years), James Morrill (17 years), James Davis (13 years), John Sterry Baker (14 years) and Barbara Thomson (5 years). Sutton and Walshe also include a valuable appendix documentary all of Buckley’s movements while he lived with the Aborigines.
In short, Pascoe is what Sutton and Walshe dismiss as ‘an armchair theorist’ — a criticism all the more damning when they quote the famous anthropologist W.E.H. ‘Bill’ Stanner:
‘The damage to our appreciation of Aboriginal life really came from the men of the armchair, who write from afar under a kind of enchantment’.
Eighth, Australian aborigines were hunter-gathers and did not engage in agriculture. This point lies at the very heart of the debate. Sutton and Walshe persuasively argue that the Old People—as Sutton prefers to label Aboriginal peoples—that they were neither mere hunter-gathers but neither did they engage in agriculture per se. Sutton and Walshe pose and then answer the following question:
If ‘agriculture’ was the way of life of the Old People, why did they not segue smoothly into the domestic gardening—and the broad-field ploughing, sowing and cropping—of the British settles? The latter tediously and repeatedly claimed that many of the people they encountered were averse to horticulture and agriculture both. They were great horseback musterers and game trackers, but averse to hoeing, weeding and planting. Knowing—as the Old People did full well—that plants grew from seeds and tubers, ignorance played no role in this rejection of farming. It was cultural resistance, and loyalty to their own ways.
…A minority harvested grass seeds and ground them into a paste that could be cooked or eaten raw. They had not, however, become farmers who created and tended fields, sowed crops and lived in permanent villages. Nor had they become horticulturalists (gardeners). They had their own way. This way should be cherished.
Ninth, nor did they engage in ‘aquaculture’ or ‘permanent dwellings’. Following on from the previous point, neither did Aborigines engage in this kind of activity. As Sutton and Walshe explain:
Most people’s understanding of ‘aquaculture’ would define it as the protective breeding, rearing and harvesting of aquatic animals. Raising fingerlings in captivity, where they are protected from predators, is usually integral to aquaculture enterprises. That is, there is domestication of the reproductive beginnings of the relevant fish population. While the Old People did this through ritual and through communicating with aquatic spirits, there is no evidence they did so using physical technology.
Similarly, Aboriginal peoples did not construct permanent dwellings. Some of the examples of Pascoe’s errors here are quite frankly, embarrassing. For instance, Pascoe claims that the people of Cape York and Arnhem Land had two types of housing to suit the wet and dry seasons. However, as Sutton rightly explains, ‘His assessment here is one of many elementary errors that a proper peer review process would have corrected. A two-season northern year is a non-Aboriginal idea’. Instead, they had a six-season calendar. And as such, ‘That monsoon-belt people used a range of forms of housing and shelter—not two, as announced by Pascoe—has been on the public record for many years’.
Tenth, Pascoe’s secularisation of Aboriginal culture. Sutton and Walshe believe that the disconnect between the spiritual and the physical is not Dark Emu’s ‘biggest gap’. As Sutton states, ‘A secularised notion of Aboriginal cultivation, devoid of spiritual dimensions, did not exist in Australia before conquest’. This means that Pascoe ‘mythologises’ Aboriginal history and culture by ironically, ‘ignoring the spiritual propagation culture of the Old People. As such, ‘He [Pascoe] is in this way as much a myth-maker as a myth-breaker’. Sutton states:
The Australian people of the pre-conquest era did not avoid agriculture because they didn’t know how plants grow. The proposition would be absurd, given they were acute observers of the plants around them and the plants’ life cycles. Instead, they regarded the fertility and the reproductive spark that maintained plant populations via seeds to be spiritual, not a matter of secular human technology.
How government departments respond remains to be seen. But there are wider questions here also relating to the media—and in particular, the ABC—who have championed such blatant falsehoods. As Parnell Palme McGuinness bravely argued in The Sydney Morning Herald:
There are views that are not socially acceptable. They are not, as the Germans say, ‘salonfähig’ – meaning, suitable to be aired in the salons, boardroom lunches, writers’ festivals, or harbour side soirees of fashionable society.
Sutton and Walshe though, go even further:
This journalistic abandonment of the academy, if that is what it is, seems to be symptomatic of a break from the past—a past in which professional knowledge and lay knowledge were more distinct, and the distinction more respected. The authority of the academy has slipped. Much worse than that, the authority of Aboriginal knowledge-holders has been ignored again.
Without doubt, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is one of the most important books to be published on the subject of Aboriginal issues this century. It will not only change the way people view and understand Aboriginal people, but also act as a warning to the media elite not to jump without looking onto the latest progressive bandwagon.
Mark Powell is a Presbyterian pastor