A Left-Flank Dismissal of ‘Dark Emu’

When I received my copy of Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate by Drs Sutton and Walshe, of course the first thing I did was to check if my book got a mention, and indeed it did.  What a buzz, you might think.  Alas, Bitter Harvest was relegated to footnote 47 on page 220.  Here is what it said:

A similar limitation applies to Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest …, a pugnacious polemical assessment of Dark Emu.  While O’Brien relies on Mitchell, Sturt, Grey, Davis, McKinlay, Giles, King and other explorers and on colonial lay observers such as Tench, Hunter, Beveridge, Robinson and Kirby, extremely few other anthropologists or archaeologists, other than self-taught ethnographers Howitt, Dawson and Basedow manage to make an appearance.

Well thanks very much, Drs Sutton and Walshe.  Permit me to respond.

Firstly, let me note that 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 Bruce Pascoe had failed to prove his own thesis.  In doing so, I, of course, relied principally on the sources that Pascoe cited. Pascoe’s schtick is 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 and its author are complete and utter frauds.

As to the charge that my book is a ‘pugnacious polemical assessment’, I can only reply that, if it is a polemic, it takes fire to fight fire.  Dark Emu is itself a polemic, and its target is the nation state of Australia as currently established.  Bitter Harvest is certainly a counter-attack.  As I have pointed out earlier and elsewhere, at least half of Dark Emu is devoted to vilification of colonists and current day mainstream Australians.  The aim is to undermine the legal basis for the establishment of, first, the colonies, and then, ultimately, the nation state that grew out of them.  So, it requires a comprehensive response. And for someone as impervious to criticism and so shameless as Pascoe, it must necessarily be “pugnacious”.

However, having got that off my chest, let me get to Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers itself.  First up, this is a very good book for the average reader.  Sutton and Walshe make their case in a comprehensive but very easily understood fashion and you are left in no doubt that the Aboriginal people were not sedentary agriculturalists.  In that sense Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers goes further than Bitter Harvest in that, as I say above, I only demonstrated that Pascoe had failed to make his case.

One section particularly resonated with me.  Chapter Two, “Spiritual Propagation”, argues that Aboriginal people were not ‘mere’ hunter/gatherers wandering aimlessly over the countryside in search of food.   Pascoe makes the claim that most Australian people saw them that way, but I doubt that is true.  In Dark Emu, he makes many strawman claims of this nature.  I contend that this is not the case for the majority of Australians, who gave Aborigines considerably more credit than this in respect of survival.   As one example, back in the 1980s, Army officer Les Hiddens made a very popular TV series called Bush Tucker Man, which clearly showed this not to be the case.

In the Spiritual Propagation chapter, Dr Sutton makes the case that Aborigines did not intervene in food production in the physical way Pascoe claimed, i.e agricultural practice, but spiritually, by means of rituals or ‘increase ceremonies’ designed to ensure continuation of a plentiful supply of food.  He gives a plethora of examples across the whole continent.  His point is that the people were quite well aware of the process of propagation of both plant and animal based food sources.  Their interventions may have been, largely, symbolic but they were purposeful, and the people knew exactly where and when to find food.  They were not ‘hapless’.  Sutton is at pains to make the point that while Aborigines were not agriculturalists, neither were they ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers.    He prefers to classify them as hunter-gatherers-plus.

Order Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest here

But that is as far as it goes.  Obviously, the ‘increase ceremonies’ did not always work.  We have numerous records from the early explorers of Aboriginal people starving.  For example, we have the observation of John Hunter, captain of Governor Phillip’s fleet, that:

In July, our Scorbutic patients seem to be rather Worse; the want of a little fresh food for the Sick is very much felt, & fish at this time are very Scarse, such of the Natives as we meet seem to be in a Miserable & Starving Condition from that Scarsity, We frequently fall in with Familys living in the Hollow part of a Rock by the Sea side, where they eagerly watch every opportunity of Moderate Weather to provide Shell or other fish for their present Sustenance. If a bird is Shott & thrown to them, they immedly pluck off the feathers & put upon their fire without taking out the Entrails, they eat the Whole, and if it is a small Bird, do not even throw the bones away. This Season in which fish are so scarse, Subjects these poor Creatures to great distress, at least we are apt to beleive so. We frequently find them gathering a kind of Root in the Woods, which they broil on the fire, then beat it between two Stones untill it is quite Soft, this they Chew untill they have extracted all the Nutritive part, then throw it away – This Root appears to be a Species of the Orchis or has much of its nutritive quality.

Spiritual propagation clearly had its limitations, so why didn’t they augment it with physical intervention.  Sutton makes the point that it was not because they did not understand the process but that they specifically rejected it.  He points out that Thomas Mitchell observed:

Such health and exemption from disease; such intensity of existence, in short, must be far beyond the enjoyments of civilised men, with all that art can do for them; and the proof of this is to be found in the failure of all attempts to persuade these free denizens of uncultivated earth to forsake it for the tilled ground. They prefer the land unbroken and free from the earliest curse pronounced against the first banished and first created man.

Sutton also points out that Aborigines of the north of Australia had the example of the tree planting and chose not to take it up:

Plants suitable for domestication were introduced to north Australia before colonization of that region.  They were planted by visitors such as the Buginese and Macassans, and included betel nut palms, coconut palms and tamarind trees – but Aboriginal people did not adopt the practice of planting them.[1]

 And he points to the attitude of many, if not most, modern day tribal Aborigines — that Nature will provide.

Which brings us to what Sutton describes as ‘social evolution rebirthed’.  Quoted at the beginning of Chapter 5 of Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers?, Professor Tom Griffiths says:

Pascoe often over-reads the sources – and for what purpose?  To prove that Aboriginal peoples were like Europeans?  Dark Emu is too much in thrall to a discredited evolutionary view of economic stages …

There is concern that archaic evolutionary hierarchies should be revived just when we thought that such a northern-hemisphere mode of thinking had been transcended in Australia.[2]

If Griffiths really believes that Pascoe ‘over-reads’ his sources, i.e that he simply misinterprets them, then he is rather more gullible than a professor should be.   The evidence is overwhelming that Pascoe deliberately misrepresents and invents his sources.  But, I suspect that Griffiths knows this and isn’t prepared to give Pascoe’s bogus scholarship the drubbing it deserves. Sutton adds:

Under this Eurocentric and now thoroughly discredited model, Aboriginal people would look like primitives unless they could be retrospectively remade into farmers.[3]


Talk of degrees of advancement and ‘early stages’ of agricultural development are the words of economic and technological evolutionism.[4]

He then asks a valid question:

If Australian societies were, as Pascoe argues, on a ‘movement towards agricultural reliance’, was this same movement going on for 50,000 years?  If people devised these adaptations 50,000 years ago, have they been stuck in a time warp of ‘lack of advancement’ ever since? Why should we believe things would have necessarily gone any further along this trajectory but for the fact that they were cataclysmically interrupted by European conquest in 1788 and later? If these shifts were ‘advancement’ as Pascoe says, does a failure to get any further over thousands of years mean that Aboriginal people were ‘less advanced’ than the rest of the world by 1788, perpetually treading water?

As to whether or not Aboriginal advancement would have gone any further along a trajectory of development had the British not arrived in 1788, I would answer with a firm ‘no’.  However, at the risk of subscribing to the now ‘thoroughly discredited’ notion of social evolutionism, I would answer Sutton’s final question in the affirmative. 

The following quote probably best sums up Sutton’s position:

One can legitimately interpret … use of qualifiers such as semi-(cultivation) and proto-(agriculture) as Eurocentric wishful thinking.  They start from a fully-fledged economic production type known in England or China (etc) and work backwards to practices that didn’t quite make it to the fully-fledged stage. One should be cautious about the directional flow of ideas here.  They can, as we have seen, take us back to social evolution and the idea of the primitive society.  What, one may ask, was supposedly partial or not fully-fledged about traditional Aboriginal environmental agency? Why not just accept it as the concluded cultural development that met people’s needs and used their finely honed subsistence skills?[5]

Sutton’s belief is that human advancement doesn’t follow a universal model that inevitably results in a sedentary agricultural economy strongly reliant on technology.  He sees it as a case of ‘horses for courses’.   Elsewhere in Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers?, Sutton rejects Pascoe’s examples of the Lake Condah eel complex, now known as Budj Bim, and the Brewarrina fish traps as demonstrating that the Aboriginal people led a sedentary life. Sutton says they are the exceptions that prove the rule.  Given that the only peoples on Earth who never made it to agriculture were the Australian Aborigines, some the North American Indian tribes, the Inuit and various peoples of northern Asia and Europe, could these not also be the exceptions proving the rule that humans in general will advance to eventually abandon the nomadic subsistence lifestyle?  Could it be that when movement along that trajectory ceases, it is because some factor (or factors) has interfered with a natural process?  

I daresay Jacob Bronowski is a bit passe these days, but his celebration of humanity, The Ascent of Man, captured me in my younger days.  He postulated that in the long social evolutionary process that humans have undergone, there was a major step change about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.  And that was a shift from nomadism to settled agriculture. According to Bronowski:

What made that possible? An act of will by men, surely; but with that, a strange and secret act of nature. In the burst of new vegetation at the end of the Ice Age, a hybrid wheat appeared in the Middle East.  It happened in many places.

So, you could describe this transition as a revolution.  Obviously that happy intervention by nature did not occur in Australia and Aboriginal people cannot be blamed for not having made the transition.  But would they have made the transition had the opportunity presented itself?  Could it be that the intensely spiritual nature of Aboriginal life that Sutton describes and applauds, coupled with the strict conservatism of their culture (which he also notes), would have prevented them taking that step?  The plight of remote Aboriginal communities suggests it is a distinct possibility.  But then, perhaps, two hundred years is too short a time to judge.  

But that does not refute the brutal reality that Aboriginal society was relatively primitive, despite the spirituality.  (As an aside, isn’t it is a curious feature of modern thinking that can eulogise the spirituality of Aboriginal culture and yet demonize what remains of our own?)

It may be uncomfortable for some Aboriginal people to accept that their forbears were a primitive people, at least in physical terms.  That is not a moral judgement.  It does not imply that they were any less deserving as human beings and that the atrocities undoubtedly perpetrated against them were any the less abominable for that.  We can admire their skill at making the best of their situation in their own way. 

Modern Western society is still evolving socially.  For example, we left behind infanticide, cannibalism and accepted violence against women generations ago, all of which were significant features of Aboriginal culture in 1788.  More recent advances include equal rights for women, the universal franchise, decriminalization of homosexuality etc.  One might quibble about some of the most recent initiatives, as I do, but nonetheless they still represent social evolution.

Sutton notes that Aboriginal spirituality is so deep and complex that the people do not ascribe works such as the Brewarrina fish traps or ancient rock paintings to human agency but to Dreamtime figures.  And yet they, at least many of them, believed that every death, other than from old age, was caused by some malign human intervention and it required the perpetrator to be sought out and appropriately punished.  This practice inevitably resulted in the slaughter of innocent people.  It still happens today. 

It seems to me the term ‘primitive’ might justly be applied to these aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture.

And by the way, who decided that social evolutionism was ‘discredited’?  A self-selecting cabal of cloistered academics whose work might be typified by that of Professor Ian McNiven, inventor of the Mt Elephant Megalith myth?

Societies change mostly through evolution but occasionally through revolution.  Michael Connor, in a perceptive essay in the July/August edition of Quadrant, reveals other aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture that many people might find uncomfortable. He postulates that, contrary to what Sutton asserts, the colonisation of Australia did not constitute a conquest but rather a revolution.  Admittedly, revolutions are normally internal affairs – a response to internal provocations or unfulfilled demands.  But, in the absence of an internal trigger – such as described by Jacob Bronowski – this revolution, inevitable in the grand scheme of things, was arguably better timed in 1788 than it would have been in the unlikely event that Australia had been left in total isolation until 1988.  This was the revolution that Aboriginal culture had to have.  And that is not to deny the tragic consequences for many individuals.

But all of the above is of academic interest only.  As is the obsession of urban Aboriginal people with culture, ‘country’ and special rights.  What does, or should, concern us now is how we can redress genuine inequality, overwhelmingly a problem for the remote and largely genetically pure Aboriginal communities.  In this respect, it matters not a jot if Aborigines were farmers or hunter/gatherers. 

Which brings me to the aspect of Dark Emu, that Sutton and Walshe have ignored – the vilification of white Australia.

I have highlighted just some of the deceptive and fraudulent attacks that Pascoe has engineered upon white society here and here.

Dark Emu is essentially a political tract which has two strands – a glorification of Aboriginal achievement on one hand and, on the other, a demonization of white society both then and now – the aim of which is to bolster the case for Aboriginal sovereignty.  I have made this point in numerous articles.  How do we know this?  Professor Marcia Langton, one of Australia’s most influential Aboriginal activists, gives us a clue.  She is quoted in Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers?:

Eight years before Dark Emu, Langton re-iterated the fact that the ‘mere hunter-gatherer’ model of Aboriginal people before European contact was something that lay in the past:

“Economic approaches to pre-European contact history have evolved from an initial view of pre-historic Australians as simple foragers to a greater understanding of the complex connections between the social and physical dimensions of resource exploitation in hunting and gathering societies”.[6]

The point Sutton is making here is that Langton is distinguishing between ‘mere hunter-gatherers’ and ‘hunter-gatherers-plus’ as Sutton prefers to classify Aboriginal society.  He goes on to say:

Langton was nevertheless happy to describe the pre-conquest subsistence system of the peoples of Cape York Peninsula, perhaps by way of a convenient shorthand, as ‘their hunting, gathering and fishing economy’.  No evidence of pre-conquest horticulture or agriculture can be found in Langton’s writings on the people of south-east CYP with whom she carried out fieldwork for her PhD on their relationships with country.[7]

So, Langton knew, from her own research, that Pascoe’s claims were false, yet she described Dark Emu as the most important book in Australia, one that should be read by everyone.  To date she has not publicly resiled from that position and has avoided all requests for comment on the new book. Pascoe’s divisive rhetoric is grist to her mill.

Sutton shares Langton’s political agenda.  He makes his own position clear at the beginning and end of his book.  Here from his conclusion:

If non-Aboriginal Australians become enamoured of works like Dark Emu in a search for forgiveness or reconciliation or the undoing of the colonial crimes of their forebears, this is understandable.  In the case of the crimes, most of them cannot now be undone, although recognition of native title has been and will continue to be a welcome reversal of at least some of the dispossession the OId People suffered through colonization.

But the stains of blood are permanent.  No number of apologies – valuable, just and cathartic as they have been – can change what happened, yet they have been imperative nonetheless.  There remains the need for the future to be better than the past, both practically and symbolically.  Constitutional recognition of Australia’s First People is one important pathway of unfinished business.

Another outstanding issue is Australia Day.

I looked in vain for any mention of the practical measures – as opposed to the above symbolic ones –  such as eliminating the child and domestic abuse rife aboriginal communities, reducing the incidence of diabetes and other serious health concerns, finding meaningful work for young people and educating the children.   Sutton, of all people, must know that it is Aboriginal culture – where it is still truly lived, rather than virtue-signalled – that is the major impediment to real progress for the most disadvantaged Aboriginal people.

Sutton and Walshe want exactly the same things that Pascoe, Langton and many others want, viz the fripperies mentioned above.  They are just not prepared to fight for them based on false premises – and all credit to them for that – but unfortunately they don’t extend to calling out Pascoe’s divisive rhetoric. On that topic they are on a ‘unity ticket’ with Langton and others.

Farmers or Hunter/Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate
Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
Melbourne University Press $34.99


[1] S&W p 11

[2] S&W p 66

[3] S&W p 66

[4] S&W p 69

[5] S&W p 87

[6] S&W p 57

[7] S&W p 57

16 thoughts on “A Left-Flank Dismissal of ‘Dark Emu’

  • ChrisPer says:

    Performative intervention for ‘increase’ sounds awesome. Please explain how that is better than prayer. Also, knowing what has happened to women and children and tribal enemies in the course of ‘intervention’, may we ask exactly what practices were involved? ‘Increase’ is a very… abstract word.

  • John Cook says:

    I have just finished Geoffrey Blainey’s 1975 “Triumph of the Nomads”. He says much the same as Sutton & Walshe regarding the cultural & spiritual aspects of Aboriginal nomadic life.
    I have also read Pascoe’s & O’Brien’s books.
    Pascoe should have been denounced in much stronger terms than the 2 academics used.

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    Geoffrey Blainey updated “Triumph of the Nomads” with “The Story Of Australia’s People – The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia,” I’ve just finished that – highly recommended.

  • MungoMann says:

    Good, analytical article that gets deep down into the competing false narratives that are Dark Emu. But the Left can’t help themselves – to a layman it all just looks as if academics, including S&W, are driven by a self loathing of our wonderful Anglo-Australian society. For example, apparently we are not meant to be proud of our own social and technical evolution along a trajectory that has given us our modern Australian mixed economy, which is clearly better than the Aboriginal hunter gatherer one. Are these academics delusional?

  • Blair says:

    When did the Old People morph into First Nations?

  • Citizen Kane says:

    Although Sutton and Walshe’s contribution is valuable, they are still clearly tied to the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage and in their own way are as fabulist as Pascoe.

  • john.singer says:

    In this excellent critique-analysis Peter O’Brien proves once again that scholarship lies in the acquisition and application of knowledge. Not the accumulation of titles, nomenclatures and derisive commentaries. Peter O’Brien can see past the smoke haze to identify the problem and if not yet able to offer the solution at least able to identify and reject ones destined to fail.

  • lbloveday says:

    “If a bird is Shott & thrown to them, they immedly pluck off the feathers & put upon their fire without taking out the Entrails”
    That persisted for many a year. In the early 1980’s, I visited Maryvale Station, south of Alice Springs and at the behest of a group of Aborigine children shot a duck on a pond. Into the water they splashed to retrieve the duck then put it on their fire, although without plucking it first.
    The school teacher at the Station, whom I’d know since our school days, told me how truly wonderful the kids were until they got old enough to look at the future, what lay ahead, and saw nothing but hopelessness – as PO wrote, no “meaningful work for young people” and the seemingly worthless layabout existence of the adults in the camp, which was then “ruled” by the violent Rupert Maxwell Stuart.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Mitchell’s diary entry about how the “free denizens of uncultivated earth” could not be persuaded to embrace “the tilled ground” is the money shot, which game-set-and-match damns Pascoe. On one hand Pascoe misrepresents Mitchell’s diaries to buttress his bullshit theory, but on the other hand, Mitchell himself directly contradicts Pascoe by saying the native peoples could not be convinced to be Anglo-style farmers. Hoist on his own canard.

  • alexblok says:

    Agree with Citizen Kane on the two versions of fabulism, but could I attempt to rescue old Jean-Jacques Rousseau from that Noble Savage meme?
    Its origin is in Tacitus’ Germania tract of c98AD where the noble and idyllic German tribes are contrasted to the decadence of Rome.
    Luther re-used it 15 centuries later to fire up the German states against another Rome; in English, idealised Amerindians had been used in polemics and utopias from in 1509 to Swift and others.
    Rousseau neither preached a return to nature, nor invented the Noble Savage. The distortion comes from an envious Voltaire (“Rousseau wants to make us all fours” when attacking R.’s On the Origin of Inequality c.1755) and seems to have stuck ever since.

  • Petronius says:

    I read Bitter Harvest as a rebuttal of the story line in Dark Emu. I never expected it to be a scholarly study of Aboriginal pre-1788 economy. Very odd that Sutton/Walshe should mistake its purpose. I suppose they went out of their way to denigrate it in a footnote in order to puff up their own work. Had they been fair in their assessment of Bitter Harvest and recognised it as a noteworthy precursor it might have taken a little shine of their own opus. It is also very fashionable for the progressives to treat Mr O’Brien as a non-person who has produced an unmentionable book. It is part of being acceptable in their club.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    thank you for your very generous assessment of my book!

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good riposte Peter. In my view Sutton and Walshe are the academic version of the extreme left, and no more to be trusted than the fantasist Pascoe. Their comment on your book being a ‘pugnacious polemical, is stupid as it’s blatantly obvious that’s exactly what Pascoe’s book was, and you were critiquing it, which is the correct procedure in any science…. to arrive at the truth. Also their clumsy sort of dismissal of the original explorers and ‘lay observers’, whatever that means, in favour of the latest university versions of anthropology are even more stupid & just ad hominem put down words. Down through the ages it’s the eye witness accounts that count most, from those who were actually there and saw with their own eyes what happened. The scholarly experts years later can tidy it up a bit, so long as they don’t change it. They were not there, & as each generation of them changes, new political views creep in, so we get another changed view, while the eye witness account remains the same. The explorers and lay observers were the only eye witnesses…and that’s the truth of the matter.

  • Losthope says:

    Mr OBrien,
    Please forgive me, as i mean no direspect, but…

    1 it does not matter who sounds the alarm, provided it is sounded. You were the first i know of who sounded the alarm to Pascoe’s fabulist tale.
    2 Sutton and Walshe want to sell their book, so are unlikely to give your book glowing reviews.
    3 the left or anyone else in a position of authority NEVER admits a mistake, nor apologizes.
    4, every time i open Quadrant , i see your name associated with another Pascoe story . I feel you are in a loop. I have your book. It is a cracker of a read. It is elegant,forthright,logical, honest, and simply a pleasure to read. I for one would LOVE to read your views on Covid, BLM, Trump, Biden, religion.
    Thank you for your tme and consideration

  • Peter OBrien says:


    thank you for your comments, particularly re BH. I would love to write on other matters such as those you talk about, as I have done in the past. But right now Pascoe is a hot topic and I have to make hay while the sun shines. And I have found myself becoming more and more interested in Aboriginal matters in general, particularly The Voice and constitutional recognition. I will be writing more on those topics in the next little while.

  • Losthope says:

    Dear Col OBrien,
    Then i stand corrected and apologize, having read your book, your veracity and search foe truth is beyond question..i hope there are more books from you to come again
    Thank you for your time and consideration

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