I have an admission to make. I’ve never read ‘Dark Emu‘. I have, on the other hand, read Bruce Pascoe’s predecessor book, the much more aggressive and more localised, ‘Convincing Ground‘. It was the work that turned Pascoe from a novelist into a historian in 2007, though I note his dedication states, “This is not a history, it’s an incitement”. However, it failed to convince me of his historical method, though his ugly picture of the colonisation of Victoria was pretty passionate. But, having encountered a few Desert, Arnhem and Kimberley people and read a whole lot more about their art and culture, I was fairly confident that the nomadism which Pascoe reportedly denied in ‘Dark Emu’ was an essential way of life in the harder parts of Australia.

And that travelling had to be supported by an essential understanding of Country, backed by a spiritual rule-book that required a quasi-military discipline to survive.

So, why get annoyed reading something everyone else had?

As a result, it may be unfair of me to buy into the imbroglio that’s erupted following the publication of Drs Peter Sutton’s and Keryn Walshe’s book, ‘Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers – The Dark Emu Debate’. But they’ve sure set the quoll amongst the galahs!

And the essence is pretty devastating: that the saintly Bruce Pascoe – himself a Melbourne University Enterprise Professor – had taken a whitefellar’s social evolutionist view of Aboriginal history to insist that, pre-conquest, First Nations people had often developed a settled, agricultural way of life that was as advanced as their European invaders.

Reactions have been widespread – mainly because ‘Dark Emu‘ has been such a success. It’s sold some 316,000 copies in different editions, took out the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year in 2016 (though, oddly, it had been published in 2014), been put on school curricula, and attracted Bangarra Dance Theatre to create a full-length work based upon it. As my son – an enthusiast for the book – has argued, “’Dark Emu‘ is making Aboriginal culture more relateable for a non-Aboriginal audience”.

Here are some of the reactions since mid-June:
Prominent journalist and Wiradjuri man, Stan Grant has weighed into the debate, describing Pascoe as a “conjurer” who “invites people to disbelieve their eyes”.

Noongar woman Dr Hannah McGlade, a member of the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, who was actually one of a small number of Indigenous Australians who had earlier criticised ‘Dark Emu’, says, “Aboriginal people were not farmers or agronomists. They had intricate knowledge and understanding of lands and relationship to land imbued with deep spiritual connections”.

Warraimaay historian from mid-north coast NSW, Victoria Grieve-Williams links ‘Dark Emu‘ to the Ern Malley and Helen Demidenko literary ‘hoaxes’, asserting “Sutton and Walshe argue that ‘Dark Emu‘ is littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions and ignores information that does not support the author’s opinions. Did Magbala Press put (it) through a peer review process before publication?”.

Online news publisher ‘Crikey‘ has uploaded no fewer than five critiques by David Hardaker, one with the subtitle, ‘The Business of Being Bruce Pascoe’, listing the spin-offs into academia (that professorship “for those with specialist knowledge”), native food and even beer that have followed publication. Hardaker assesses: “This appraisal needs to be set against white Australia’s need for a myth as a salve for its guilt about the colonial invasion of Indigenous Australia. That is what ‘Dark Emu‘ offers: a description of a people’s achievements that white people can relate to and a way to atone for it. But, missing from the debate, is influential academic Professor Marcia Langton, who has been one of Pascoe’s strongest supporters. Langton has described Dark Emu as “the most important book on Australia which should be read by every Australian”.

Another supporter has been the even more saintly Bill Gammage, who first hit the headlines in the cause of Aboriginal land management with ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ in 2011. Subtitled, ‘How Aborigines Made Australia‘, it introduced fire-farming into everyday conversation. Now, sadly, Gammage admits that his health hasn’t allowed him to read all of ‘Farmer or Hunter-Gatherers’, only check out mentions of his own name in the index! On the ‘Inside Story’ website, he goes on “Sutton thinks Pascoe is endorsing “mere” (as in “mere hunter-gatherers”) rather than exploding it. He elaborates on this misunderstanding several times, for example: “It is almost as if the more European the Old People can be made to seem, the better… This is Dark Emu’s most fundamental flaw.” Extraordinary. Here and elsewhere, the more charitable interpretation is that Pascoe is being ironic. And he ought to be able to say that he thinks people were farmers without being called a racist. The madhouse echoes”.

That really is off-the-wall stuff. At no point does Sutton even suggest that Pascoe is racist. But the claim did remind me that both Pascoe and Gammage were parties to one of my favourite works in the 2019 Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide – Jonathan Jones’s ‘Bunha-Bunhanga : Aboriginal agriculture in the south-east‘. Over two locations, the combination of a beautiful wallpaper featuring Murnang/yam flowers, colonial furniture and artworks, prints of ‘native’ grasses, and the magical sound of the grindstone that was such an important part of Aboriginal diet, sociology and mythology was all very winning. Pity Pascoe’s wild optimism (in his follow-up, ‘Young Dark Emu‘) that Aboriginal grindstones date back 65,000 years is severely dented by solid archaeological evidence of a 4000 year history, and just the possibility of the grindstone found at Cuddie Springs being 30,000 years old.

But Jones’s brave catalogue assertions supporting his art now look a little OTT: ”Uncle Bruce Pascoe has championed the recognition of Aboriginal technologies and industries, from aquaculture to architectural monuments, in his book ‘Dark Emu’. By looking at historical texts and highlighting Aboriginal knowledge, Uncle Bruce demonstrates the complexity, scale and ancestry of Aboriginal agriculture that was so well advanced that changes in the morphology of the grains and other Aboriginal food sources can be recognised as being the result of domestication”.

Oh, and ‘The Australian’ cartoonist Johannes (son of the once-brilliant Bill) Leake, took a Murdochian swipe at poor Pascoe, picturing a queue of punters demanding their money back by returning ‘Dark Emu’.

At which point, let’s turn our attention to the Sutton/Walshe book – where archaeologist Walshe has contributed a valuable appendix on the arrival of Indigenous people in Australia, “around 50,000 years ago or very slightly before”. Typical of the authors’ thoroughness, her page and half summation required eight different citings. Sutton, meanwhile, gets stuck into a variety of ‘Dark Emu’ claims relating to firestick farming, aquaculture, permanent housing, clothing, mobility and Pascoe’s use of white explorers records rather than actual Aboriginal experience. Walshe then tackles the minutiae of the famous Budj Bim fish traps.

For Pascoe would like to believe that the efficiency of the aquaculture there produced such a predictable supply of food that a population of 10,000 could permanently inhabit houses there. Stone circles abound, which, for him are evidence of houses that may have been two metres high. And this, he asserts, denies the “accepted view of Aborigines” that they lived by “hapless opportunism in wandering from plant to plant and kangaroo to kangaroo”.

Peter Sutton has spent 50 years observing First Nations people close up at various locations, and notes that Pascoe’s “accepted view” has actually been denied since 1959 when Norman Tindale (a fellow South Australian anthropologist) started analysing the ecological effect of Aborigines on Australia via fire and the digging stick. Both were aspects of “cleaning” or “taming” the country, via active management rather than passive food collecting. And here the importance of Aboriginal languages comes in, ignored by Pascoe, but seized upon by Sutton to point out that no words exist in the languages he’s studied for such aspects of agriculture as planting, propagation or garden.

But at Budj Bim, the World Heritage site known and admired by colonists for 150 years (rather than discovered by Pascoe), there may be a number of stone circles, though some are likely to be natural as a result of the volcanic lave flows from Mt Eccles that created the site. But the ‘housing’ circles would have been just an essential base for a wooden construction in such a stony place, and would have been seasonally inhabited under strict Gunditjmara rules, reported as far back as 1881 in the observations of James Dawson, regarding the timing of the annual departure of kooyang eels to breed in the Coral Sea.

For Aborigines didn’t believe in excess – getting furious with the first colonists taking a mass of fish on Sydney Harbour with their efficient nets. And they had limited possibilities of storage – though Walshe’s lengthy discussion of the unlikelihood of eel smoking in the hollowed trunks of trees, which she doesn’t link to a reference by Pascoe, diminishes enthusiasm for the ‘academic’ method somewhat. As clans moved on to other seasonal food resources, they were disinclined to burden themselves with weighty supplies. And they had to move on when materials like firewood ran out within easy reach of its women gatherers.

As one of the few women anthropologists who lived out in the Deserts, Diane Bell (uncited by Sutton) put it in 1983, “Today, people are cramped in settlements in daily intense interaction with whites and other Aborigines who, a century ago, were scattered across vast tracts of land in small mobile bands which congregated only in times of plenty, or in times of scarcity, when they clustered at the last permanent water”.

What many may not realise in reading ‘Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers’ until they reach its Conclusion, is how angry Sutton is by Pascoe’s undermining the raison d’etre by which this ‘applied anthropologist’ (his self-description – he’s not an academic ivory-towerist) has spent his life – acting as an expert on 87 land-rights claims, researching them and appearing in courts on behalf of their Aboriginal claimants. So he can insist it’s “reckless” of Pascoe to claim that “every land rights application hinges on the idea that ATSI 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”.

“Pascoe has his facts completely inverted”, Sutton continues. “Australian land claim applications are based on evidence of traditional land tenure systems and managed resources (by the Old People) and their modern descendants. These constitute one of the main pillars of Aboriginal Law. Native title (is) an attempt to respect that Law. Native title is a pre-existing title, continuous since before effective British sovereignty, not a grant of title”.

But it’s just possible that Sutton himself has no understanding of the urban Blak view of Native Title. Way back in 2012, in a Sydney Festival show boldly called ‘Foley‘, the leader of much Victorian thinking in this area, Dr Gary Foley got stuck into what he referred to as “this namby-pamby thing called Native Title”. “Native Title is not Land Rights”. Foley was crystal clear. And the reason for this denial lay in his disavowal of that fundamental traditional Aboriginal belief, “their relationship with land or Country. That’s just airy-fairy nonsense for the ooga-boogas up North”.

Sutton and Walshe write for the ooga-boogas. Making the case for “perpetual spiritual belonging”, with ecological benefits for the whole biota, against merely economic relationship. “All these things are there for us; the Ancestral Being left them for us”, an Arnhemland ooga-booga tells Sutton.

I have to recall support for her from that bracing book, ‘A Brief History of Humankind – Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari. There was, says Harari, “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which our species “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. It was a bad bargain: “the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. More often than not “it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy”.

And a final gloss from that excellent surveyor/explorer Thomas Mitchell, much maligned and used selectively by both sides in this debate: Adam and Eve, he suggests, were expelled from hunter/gathering Eden and Adam’s punishment was “to till the soil from whence he was taken”!

‘Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers – The Dark Emu Debate’ is published by MUP at $34.99