IS DARK EMU JUST A BIG DUMB CHOOK?
Bruce Pascoe’s book, “Dark Emu” puts forward the claim that pre-colonial Aboriginals
were not simply hunter-gatherers but that they were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating, storing food and in some areas even developing aquaculture. (1) His book, first published in 2014, has been on the best seller lists for some time,
a second edition and numerous re-printings have come out and its contents and claims have entered school texts and what is taught to children.
Recently Pascoe’s claims have been
questioned particularly by Peter O’Brien in a book called “Bitter Harvest”. (2) O’Brien claims that Pascoe omits, distorts and mischaracterises information to the extent that “Dark Emu” is pretty useless as history. Of the
264 references and notes in Pascoe’s book 22 are from the works of Rupert Gerritsen, 15 from Bill Gammage, 15 from Charles Sturt and 30 from Thomas Mitchell. Gerritsen and Gammage are modern day writers hence their works could not be considered primary
sources – the evidence that historians rely on. Sturt and Mitchell are historical persons, who in fact did explore and write about early colonial Australia and while their writings and journals could be used as primary sources Pascoe seems to have made
a few mistakes in studying them. For instance he says Mitchell came across an Aboriginal village of over a thousand people in Queensland but when O’Brien read the same journal he found no mention of such a large village in Queensland although it did
mention a village in New South Wales. Pascoe also claims the explorers wrote of buildings of superior construction but forgot to mention that the same explorers put this down to the influence of a runaway convict living with the Aborigines.
The construction of houses and villages does not negate the idea that Aborigines were basically hunters and gatherers. The remains of buildings made of stone and more sophisticated than any that Pascoe claims the Aborigines built have been found at sites in
the Middle East such as Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia and Jericho and these are said to have been built by hunter gatherers. (3).
Pascoe also claims Aborigines were agriculturalists but does
not give an example of any variety of plant used by them that was a purely domestic form and not found in the wild. Proto-agriculture including the planting of naturally occurring seeds existed in regions of the world where early agriculture developed, and
in some case thousands of years before. (4) Pascoe gives an example of Aborigines seen planting seeds but as O’Brien points out this occurred in the 20th century and the Aborigines could have been copying what they had seen white farmers doing.
He also writes of evidence of Aborigines grinding seed for baking 30,000 years ago, long before the Ancient Egyptians were baking bread. O’Brien points out that there is evidence that Europeans also ground seeds 30,000 years ago.
Pascoe (whose Aboriginality has been disputed) seems to be part of the grievance industry surrounding Aboriginal issues and the history of Australia since white settlement in 1788. Basically it relies on a very sanitised if not romanticised picture of traditional
Aboriginal society stripped of the less savoury aspects. Pascoe does not mention intertribal violence or cannibalism for instance but O’Brien gives an example of both. O’Brien sees the grievance as growing the further removed we are from the upheavals
that started it. He calls for Aboriginal people to let this grievance go.
(1) Bruce Pascoe, “Dark Emu”, Magabala Books, Broome, New edition 2018
(2) Peter O.Brien, “Bitter Harvest”, Quadrant
Books, Sydney, 2019
(3) David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce, “Inside the Neolithic Mind”, Thames & Hudson, London, 2018, p. 31
(4) Bob Holmes, “Quiet Revolutions”, New Scientist, 31 October 2015