Bennelong Papers

Pascoe’s Defenders Throw Down Those ‘Factish Gods’

Peter O’Brien for several years battled courageously to expose Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu as fraudulent. He received very little support beyond Quadrant, and in the domain of public debate his Bitter Harvest was denied existence. Journals of opinion refused to publish any critical comment; and, with only a few exceptions,  anthropologists and archaeologists and other academics excused themselves from publicly offering scholarly assessments on the grounds that the issue had become too politicised, bolstering their reticence by pointing to the campaign by conservative Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt to prove Pascoe’s claim to be an indigenous person is bogus. This ill-advised silence allowed Dark Emu to gain extraordinary popularity, be accepted as a university text and countenanced incalculable damage to be inflicted by his “truer history” on school children.

Recently, what could reasonably be expected to be a game-changer occurred. Along with Bitter Harvest and an article by anthropologist Dr Ian Keen (‘Foragers or Farmers: Dark Emu and the Controversy over Aboriginal Agriculture’ in Anthropological ForumA Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology)  there was the publication by Professor Peter Sutton and Dr Keryn Walshe of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. Professor Sutton is one of Australia’s leading anthropologists, a scholar who has written or contributed to 20 books and about 200 anthropology and linguistics papers and has been an expert anthropological researcher in 87 Aboriginal land claims since 1979. Dr Keryn Walshe’s work in archaeology over 35 years has included extensive field work. They have subjected the claims made in Dark Emu to forensic examination and conclude that while it

purports to be factual … 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.

Dark Emu is actually not, properly considered, a work of scholarship. Its success as a narrative has been achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact.

Pascoe greeted this demolition of Dark Emu with characteristic insouciance,  saying it would be “disappointing” if Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal history “digressed to a limiting debate about semantics and nomenclature … In fact, I welcome the discussion and difference of opinion as it should further this important examination of our history”. (Stuart Rintoul, ‘Debunking Dark Emu”, SMH, 12/6/21). But whatever the labels applied to the controversy, at stake is one of the most fundamental issues in the pre-history of Australia which continues to be of urgent relevance for Aboriginal people and their descendants.

Yet contrary to reasonable expectations, there has been no discernible  ripple of re-evaluation in academe. No retraction by prominent academics such as Professor Marcia Langton, who rates Dark Emu “the most important book on Australia”, or that Pascoe possessed the credentials for the appointment as Professor of Indigenous Agriculture. No second thoughts, too, by the judges responsible for the extensive list of prestigious awards with which Pascoe has been garlanded, and no withdrawal of his Young Dark Emu from schools.

Order the new edition of Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest by clicking here 

Only one journalist, the veteran Ian Warden, has confessed to being conned. Historian Professor Tim Rowse, after being obliged to concede that “they [Sutton/Walshe] chip away at so many parts of Pascoe’s thesis that it is, in my opinion, demolished”, he elevates the travesty to an account worthy of debate.( Inside Story, 16 June, 2021). The Conversation (14 June, 2021), notorious for ruthless censorship of any criticism of Dark Emu, could not avoid a sympathetic review by Christine Nicholls, honorary senior lecturer at ANU. Anthropologist  Stephen Bennetts provides a much more professionally grounded support for  Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?  in the Australian Book Review. What this brief overview reveals is that anthropologists and archaeologists have been missing in action. And the exceptions have proved embarrassing.

An example are the reviews by Dr Michael Davis in  the SMH, July 25-26, 2021, and Dr Richard Davis, “Dark Emu’s Critics”, Arena, 13 August, 2021. Permeating the mindset of Richard Davis is a studied disregard for the basic tenet of intellectual inquiry, namely, that it is the search for truth. In some respects it is true enough for Davis to claim, “Sutton’s promotion of Aboriginal permanence…has likely missed the zeitgeist of the contemporary moment”. But to then judge the worthiness of Dark Emu on the basis of its popularity with, “an Australian audience willing to embrace the vision of Aboriginal people as described by Pascoe”, is a denial of the most basic responsibility of a scholar to expose such a vision when it is fraudulent. Among many other examples perpetrated by Davis:

All or some of the methods and theories of a researcher such as Pascoe may be shown to be wrong, as when Pascoe incompletely cites an explorer’s journal entry or makes too much of what early Europeans saw to bolster his argument. However, Sutton’s argument, that Dark Emu is not a work of valid scholarship because it does not conform to orthodox scholarly criteria, runs close to intellectual elitism.

This is simple dishonesty, and an abandonment of all scholarly criteria. Repeatedly, Pascoe is practising deliberate deceit when he incompletely cites an explorer’s journal entry or misrepresents it. And this is further documented in devastating detail by Peter O’Brien in Bitter Harvest. In the Arena article, Davis’ tactic of attacking Professor Sutton as a means of defending Pascoe is tantamount to deception. As an historian I can only conclude that as an assessment of Dark Emu, Davis’s opinions are worthless. 

Another rare public assessment, by anthropologist Dr Gillian Cowlishaw, resorts to the same distracting tactic of attacking Professor Sutton instead of directly examining whether he marshals the evidence to sustain his conclusion that Dark Emu is nota work of scholarship”.

Dr  Cowlishaw’s “Misreading Dark Emu” would have been more aptly titled, “Misreading Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?” This  anthropologist berates Sutton for “irritated corrections of some careless referencing and reckless claims…” when his book is actually a detailed forensic examination of the evidence Pascoe enlists to support his argument. And she is simply wrong to dismiss Dr Walshe’s contribution as “less relevant.” Crucial evidence that Pascoe employs to support his case for Aboriginal agriculture are what he calls “agricultural implements” which Dr Walshe establishes are no such things, rather another example of Pascoe’s ignorance.

Dr Cowlishaw claims

Dark Emu is not about whether Aborigines were agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers, but about how they were seen by explorers, settlers and other observers. Pascoe is challenging popular beliefs about Aborigines.

Unless she has some insight denied the ordinary reader, the text and Pascoe’s many public performances challenge the universally held conclusions of anthropologists and archaeologists that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers. And Pascoe makes the insulting allegation that the contrary evidence supporting his version has been suppressed, and his objective is to unearth these facts.

One of Dr Cowlishaw’s criticisms of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?  that has to be re-read to be believed is that Sutton

leaves us ignorant of how the Old People related to white explorers, land-hungry settlers, missionaries and miners and their beliefs about ‘savages.

And he should have written about “when a massive bauxite deposit was discovered under the mission houses at Mapoon the people were forcibly moved and their houses burned down.” This can only be interpreted as an attack, not on the study Sutton wrote, but on Sutton for not writing the book Cowlishaw believes he should have written.

Finally, she is confused over who is “tilting at windmills” on the issue of the  Native Title Act, claiming that “It is not Sutton, but Pascoe who encourages … progressive thought.” In fact, Pascoe reveals a total misunderstanding of the Land Rights issue. As Sutton (who has acted as an expert anthropologist in various roles for eighty-seven  land claims, for over forty years ) explains, “Pascoe here has the facts completely inverted”.

With anthropologists and archaeologists “missing in action”, outliers muddy the waters, as does Stephen Muecke, Professor of Creative Writing at Flinders University, in  “Whitefella magic: a posthumanist take on the Dark Emu debate”. Having relegated Sutton and Walshe’s scholarly study to the category of “another battle in the culture wars”, his concern is to ask,

What kind of theory underpins their text? Do they embrace the recent ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology? – Certainly not. Any interest in ‘multi-species ethnography’? – No.

As Muecke can find no explicit philosophy in the book he draws this lesson,

The task remains: to rebuild a set of descriptions of human and nonhuman life on the continent, and to do that you need more philosophy, more Aboriginal concepts, and less kow-towing to the ‘factish gods’.

A new and expanded edition of Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest is now available and the lesson to be drawn from is that it is urgently needed.

Les Louis is a retired Associate Professor of History


20 thoughts on “Pascoe’s Defenders Throw Down Those ‘Factish Gods’

  • ChrisPer says:

    What a sad situation. But ask around: are university anthropology departments thriving? I seem to recall that UWA just shut their down completely.

    A discipline corrupted. Deprive them of funding and shut them down.

  • ChrisPer says:

    And in History, you can see that the Establishment are invested in their politicised lies. Hard work like ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History’ is just as dishonestly received.

  • wstarck says:

    A key element in regard to Bruce Pascoe’s credibility is his personal claim to Aboriginal ancestry, the complete absence of any such relationship recorded in his kinship record, and the denial of any such kinship by the Aboriginal groups with whom he has claimed relationship. However, conclusive proof would be readily available by genetic testing. Surely, if Pascoe himself has sound reason to believe he has such heritage, he would wish to prove it, or to assiduously avoid such exposure if he has no such ancestry.

    As for the validity of his wider claims concerning the nature of pre-European Aboriginal culture, the complete absence of any archaeological evidence for agriculture or permanent settlements and the absence of any such dreamtime stories or even words for such activity in Aboriginal languages render it a fantasy beyond the imagination of anyone before the current era of woke academically indoctrinated urbanites,

  • glenda ellis says:

    The acceptance of Pascoe’s work by academics generally amazes me. I tried, unsuccessfully, to read it, finding it poorly written and hopelessly footnoted, for starters. Many of my students in the ‘80s could have produced better work, and before any award was given to such a publication it should have been peer assessed. The whole affair is an indictment on the standard to which the study of history in Australia has been allowed to fall. Angry Penguins all over.

  • Lonsdale says:

    Excellent survey of the responses to Pascoe.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    No one should be surprised that those caught out in noble cause corruption try to obscure the facts which reveal their deceptions. We see this in any number of left-wing causes, climate change, black lives matter and of course our old friend, Cornish indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe. There are generally two approaches utilized by those caught out. The first, favoured by those less able to argue the facts, is to simply cancel the inconvenient source of the truth. This is also favoured by Social Media, and was for many years the approach taken by Wikipedia to Peter O’Brien. Of course Bitter Harvest is still cancelled in Wikipedia, but given their political leanings Sutton and Walshe are mentioned, if disparagingly.
    The second approach, in this case forced on the left-wing commentariat by Sutton and Walshe, is to argue against the facts. No one in their right minds would believe Davis, Cowlishaw or Muecke, but they will be supported by their colleagues and used as evidence that, as Pascoe claims, there is still an ongoing academic debate about his claims.
    Neo-Marxist noble cause corruption has resulted in a lot of damage to both history and science over the last few decades. It is indeed fortunate that a few are prepared to stand up and call it out. Now if only a few Education Ministers would take note…..

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Pascoe’s greatest crime in the lights of those ‘serving’ in academia has been to regress from the only theory acceptable, since the 1970s, when viewing the past. That is, the cultural relativism which gives licence to academia to make tenuously evidenced assertions in order to perpetuate the narrative that their tenure depends on.

    Sutton was bitterly accused of letting down the side in his Politics of Suffering 2011 by exposing the part that cultural relativism has played in the disastrous policies in Aboriginal Affairs since the interventions of HC Coombs.

    To this day, the only academics prepared to raise their heads above the parapet are those on the Emeritus lists or those independent of our supposed academic institutions.

  • restt says:

    Thank you for your article. I read Dark Emi and then Bitter Harvest … an exceptional dismantling of Pascoes lies.

    I recently obtained copies of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History … vol 1 and 3 are exceptional reads but vol 3 – the stolen generations is a must read – it completely dismantles the “stolen” and the Bringing Them Home report.

  • pgang says:

    Did I read correctly the other day that the Education Minister is calling for a total re-write of the curriculum?
    It seemed too good to be true.

  • RB says:

    pgang. It is too good to be true, any such re-write will not serve truth, only leftist dogma.

  • Alistair says:

    In my career as a geologist I worked with quite a few professional anthropologists. I found, perhaps universally, that they had abandoned fact-based “science” in favour of the more lucrative falsehood-based advocacy. There appeared to be no lie too big to to be propagated if it advanced an agenda – and absolutely no contrition when found out. I think even Sutton (when looking at his Age interview) is a bit free and easy with the facts. He likes to dismiss all early anthropology with the easy pejorative “Eurocentric”. And his criticism of Pascoe appears to be based more on the fact that he (Pascoe) doesn’t fall in with Sutton’s own Socialist-centric world-view / narrative of Aboriginal “disadvantage”

  • Blair says:

    ” However, Sutton’s argument, that Dark Emu is not a work of valid scholarship because it does not conform to orthodox scholarly criteria, runs close to intellectual elitism.”
    What are examples of unorthodox scholarly criteria?

  • terenc5 says:

    Anthropology has been in disgrace since it conspicuously ignored the DNA evidence that Mungo Man and therefore the “First Australians” were Denisovans, not aboriginal. Intellectual cowardice reigns in academia.

  • ianl says:


    Yes, my exploration/mining lease experiences with anthropologists produced similar results, with complete shamelessness when they were caught making things up.

    We found more sensible outcomes when directly addressing local indigenous councils. The only unresolvable issue then was when different indigenous groups disagreed with each other.

    My earlier point still stands, I think, that Pascoe is way more street-smart than the academics who cling to his “narrative”. So far, he’s whole suburbs of streets ahead.

  • STD says:

    Very sly emu , anybody!

  • Petronius says:

    I have noticed with those with Left leanings that when presented with reasoned arguments which manifestly overwhelm their passionate beliefs they resort to muddying the waters by bringing forward minor or irrelevant points to the main argument with the aim distracting their opponent. The argument then degenerates to the minor decoy argument which usually confuses and fatigues their adversary. If their opponent seeks to return the argument to the main issue they usually shut down the debate. The counter arguments to Farmers or Gatherers are like this; they bring up irrelevant side line issues as a smoke screen then act as if the dialectic is now over. It is just the Left’s favourite shut down tactic all over again.

  • SOS says:

    Pascoe is fake news
    Taxpayers footing the comorbid fake ceremonies that have NO anthropology basis no historical evidence NO evidence base

    Taxpayers pay for endless “welcome to country” et Al ceremonies which are expensive that have no evidence base
    A “flag” that’s actually paying royalties
    Taxpayers are the victims

  • sirtony says:

    “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired”.

    Jonathan Swift

  • pmprociv says:

    It seems a general rule that, whenever someone invokes “culture wars”, it’s an admission they’ve run out of arguments, i.e. supportive evidence, and are now fully resorting to ad hominem attacks. Only Pascoe’s supporters use this term, regularly and predictably. As for the man himself, he truly is a sharp operator, a skilled professional, with a clear eye (and ear) for his audience. A careful inspection of his Wikipedia entry, with probing of its many links, actually dredges up a wealth of detail which allows for a reasonable analysis of his career trajectory, from a struggling, mediocre writer of newspaper articles and fiction, to an “indigenous historian”. He was a lacklustre student, dropping out early from a finance course at Melbourne University, then going on to become a (primary?) school teacher in several Victorian country towns, before moving to the Drama Section of the State Education Department. His flare for dramatic self-presentation is demonstrated repeatedly, in his appearances on TV and at indigenous festivals, and on some revealing links provided by the Dark Emu Exposed website. For me, his starting up a new literary journal around the age of 40, about which time he dropped his first wife for a (presumably much younger) co-worker, suggests some sort of mid-life crisis. He then published his first novel, based on indigenous issues in the Northern Territory; the publisher’s blurb seems to be the first “record” of his indigenous identity (which is shot to pieces on Dark Emu Exposed). Having succeed so easily once, he then had another novel published as an indigenous author, and it seems to have just grown from there. Of course, his ancestry should be irrelevant to the veracity of “Dark Emu”, but it had undoubtedly boosted its access to prizes, and hence its popularity. And no doubt prompted his inexplicable appointment as a Professor to Melbourne University (as a former academic, I know just how difficult such a coveted position is to attain through the normal channels). Every attempt to question Pascoe about this, or the factual basis of Dark Emu, is skillfully deflected.
    This whole affair is such a sad reflection on the state of public intellectual discourse in Australia today, a condemnation of its academic decline (hell, Melbourne Uni once aspired to be of world standard, but now has egg all over its face), and even our public broadcasters — the ABC seems to remain an avid Pascoe supporter. If the state education departments don’t expeditiously remove Pascoe’s books, and baseless fantasies, from their curricula, this will simply indicate that the rot has become terminal.

  • john.singer says:

    As a writer Pascoe is a very competent storyteller. As a Historian or Scholar, fibber and fudger would be mild assessments. Any schoolchild with access to a laptop computer and a wordfinder could disprove the accuracy of many of his quotations in a single afternoon.

    There is no culture war here just academic snobbery and the failure of people in responsible positions to carry out due diligence.

    The University and its Professors failed to judge the work even to the extent that they would peer review a short article. They also failed to apply sufficient research in the creation of an Enterprise Professorship in Indigenous Agriculture and its proposed occupant.

    But the greatest failure was by the Minister for Indigenous Australians for endorsing a heritage he had no evidence to support and blindly continuing that support in face of evidence to the contrary.

    There is no culture war here, just the elevation of a fiction writer to a position of faux elder further distorting what should be a proud history of an Aboriginal people and their conquest of a strange land.

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