This article might seem like preaching to the converted, for which I apologize, but it’s really an attempt to put on the record a rebuttal of a commonly stated but specious defence of erstaz, sorry, Enterprise Professor Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.
Recently in a comment thread in another forum, a reader of my Bitter Harvest took me to task for claiming in the book’s promotion that:
Pascoe postulates that rather than being a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, Australian Aborigines were actually sedentary agriculturalists with ‘skills superior to those of the white colonists who took their land and despoiled it’.
My interlocutor claimed that I had constructed a straw-man argument and that Pascoe had not made this claim but merely highlighted that Aboriginal culture was more sophisticated than mainstream Australians had given it credit for.
I could not let that go unchallenged because this is a defence of Pascoe that has been deployed by a number of his cheer squad, notably in the aftermath of the release of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers – the Dark Emu debate by anthropologist Dr Peter Sutton and archaeologist Dr Kerryn Walshe.
It is a straw-man defence that has allowed incurious cheerleaders to gloss over the fact that Drs Sutton and Walshe have demolished Dark Emu from an anthropological point of view, or the fact that I have methodically checked almost all of his sources and proved that he has deliberately misquoted or misrepresented them.
I have also been criticized for stating that Pascoe’s theory was that:
Australian Aborigines were essentially a sedentary agricultural civilisation.
It is true that Pascoe did not use those exact words. But he didn’t need to. My paraphrasing of the thesis of Dark Emu is based on the overwhelming impression that the book conveys. My strong impression was that Pascoe was claiming that Aborigines were essentially farmers. Sutton and Walshe also got that impression. As did many, if not most, of his readers. Keith Potger, of Seekers fame, got that impression, telling a journalist on the ABC:
…the Mallee has been stripped bare by dust storms, where they didn’t exist in those days because of the agriculture and the careful tilling of the ground by the indigenous folks.
Here is what the judges of the NSW Premiers Literary Awards said:
Pascoe demonstrates with convincing evidence, often from early explorer’s journals, that the Aboriginal peoples lived settled and sophisticated lives here for millennia before Cook.
Steve Carroll from The Sydney Morning Herald:
Bruce Pascoe creates a picture of pre-colonised Australia as a land of cultivated farming areas, of sowing and harvesting, granaries and surplus produce, durable buildings of clay coated wood, weirs and an understanding of the soil that kept it moist and fertile before the introduction of sheep and cattle. Nor is Pascoe talking about isolated instances, but a pervasive pattern that was forgotten soon after the European arrival. And his claims are backed throughout by an astute use of the notes and observations of the early explorers, such as Thomas Mitchell, who were constantly coming across evidence of cultivation and what some of the explorers themselves called ‘towns’.
The ABC Education website says:
In 2014, Bruce Pascoe wrote a book called Dark Emu that challenged the belief that the First Australians were hunter-gatherers. In researching his book, Bruce examined the journals of the early explorers and found evidence of a complex civilisation that was using sophisticated technologies to live, farm and manage the land.
The back cover blurb of Dark Emu tells us:
Pascoe puts forward a compelling argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. The evidence insists that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer tag.
In other words, Pascoe was rejecting the notion that Aborigines were predominantly hunter-gatherers. In fact, as I show in my book, the evidence Pascoe is able to amass does not support that conclusion. He provides plenty of evidence that Aborigines harvested native grasses and tubers, such as murnong. But that is just as true of hunter-gatherer societies. What would distinguish hunter-gatherers from agriculturalists would be sowing of seed. Pascoe provides only three instances of Aboriginal people being observed sowing seed. They all occur in the twentieth century, and they are all small-scale broadcast by hand. Sutton and Walshe describe this as “spiritual propagation”. In other words, it is a ceremony designed to petition the spirit ancestors to issue them with adequate rations for the coming season.
If the label hunter-gatherer was inappropriate, as Pascoe has definitely claimed, then what other label did he propose or, at least imply, other than farmer? Sutton and Walshe apply the label ‘hunter-gatherer-plus’ but Pascoe does not make this distinction.
If I and all these others have misinterpreted what Pascoe hints at (he provides very little solid evidence) that is probably more a reflection on his writing than on our obtuseness. In 2018 Pascoe said:
In 2014 I wrote a book, Dark Emu, which exploded the myth that Aboriginal people were mere hunters and gatherers and did nothing with the land. I wrote the book because I found it hard to convince Australians that Aboriginal people were farming. Using colonial journals, the sources Australians hold to be true, I was able to form a radically different view of Australian history. Aboriginal people were farming. There’s no other conclusion to draw.
Well, there’s no other conclusion to draw if you accept unquestioningly Pascoe’s grotesque distortion of his sources. Even if you believe that Pascoe was claiming no more than that Aborigines were, on the whole, hunter-gatherers but significantly (in a statistical sense) also employed agricultural techniques, he fails to prove his case, not by sloppy scholarship but by blatant deception, as I have comprehensively demonstrated in Bitter Harvest. The Aboriginal people were not farming in any meaningful sense of the word.
But Pascoe himself has now embraced the strawman defence. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 2021, Pascoe was quoted:
There has been some criticism of my book, Dark Emu, but when I read the book, [Farmers or Hunter-Gathers? The Dark Emu Debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe], which claims to repudiate it, I was amazed at how frequently the writers agreed with me. The big sticking point seems to be what we call the precolonial Aboriginal economy and culture. I don’t really care what it is called as long as Australians are allowed to know that Aboriginal people sometimes lived in houses and villages, often employed technology to harvest food and sometimes wore cloaks and sewn apparel.
No mention, you will note, of farming, of tilling of soil, of sowing seed, of irrigation. How could all those readers quoted above have so easily deceived themselves about what Pascoe was claiming, I wonder?
In epidemiological terms, Dark Emu is now endemic and I recognize that an eradication strategy is pretty futile. Nonetheless I think it is worthwhile to maintain a prophylactic regime in order to, hopefully, inoculate as many as possible of the more vulnerable members of our community – by which I mean almost all products of our tertiary sector – against this insidious disease.
So, at the risk of seeming obsessive, another charge recently laid at my feet, I intend to continue pushing back against the Pascoe cheer squad.