Bruce Pascoe's popular book Dark Emu argues that First Australians lived complex lifestyles that included durable dwellings and cultivation of food and that they were far from the old "primitive nomad" label.
However a new book, Farmers or Hunter Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, is severely critical of Dark Emu, claiming it is riddled with errors, is derogatory towards hunter-gatherers, neglects the spiritual side of First Australians' lives and pushes antiquated ideas of "progress". Several historian reviewers seem to agree the new book "demolishes" Dark Emu.
Paul Barry, of the ABC's Media Watch, lamented that he and many people accepted Pascoe's claims too uncritically, yet now they seem to be accepting the new book's claims just as uncritically.
Sutton and Walshe claim Pascoe belittles hunter-gatherers by attaching descriptors like "mere" or "simple". But Pascoe is paraphrasing traditional White attitudes that are still fairly current. This is explicit in his sixth chapter, where he writes "The belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession." Sutton and Walshe have quite basically misinterpreted Dark Emu.
The claim that Dark Emu neglects spiritual life is plainly wrong. Of course the book is mostly about material aspects, but again in chapter six, entitled The Heavens, Language and the Law, Pascoe writes "The economic foundations of traditional society were inseparable from the philosophic and religious beliefs ...", and the point is reiterated through the chapter.
Pascoe also writes at some length about the Law, and how it maintained diverse groups in peace and stability over very long periods.
Sutton and Walshe claim Pascoe advocates the supposedly long-discredited ideas of "social evolutionism" and "progress": that by describing some practices as "early stages" of agriculture, for example, Pascoe intends us to understand First Australians would necessarily have "progressed" to full (i.e. European-style) agriculture and perhaps to "civilisation".
Nowhere in Dark Emu is this obviously intended, and in fact it is contradicted: in chapter six, Pascoe criticises some academics who "seem to be influenced by the idea that humans must be on a perpetual trajectory of growth" [Pascoe's emphasis]. Pascoe was, rather clearly, placing First Australians in the spectrum of human cultures in order to portray them as they were.
Sutton and Walshe claim that, because Wik culture in Cape York specifically eschews agriculture, Dark Emu is therefore discredited. Tasmanian historian James Boyce, writing in The Monthly, similarly implies that because Tasmanians had few of the practices cited by Pascoe then Dark Emu is wrong. But Pascoe was not arguing everyone was farming - just that farming was quite widespread.
Boyce and the academic reviewers Mark McKenna (Guardian Australia) and Tim Rowse (Inside Story) consider that errors of evidence alleged by Sutton and Walshe have "demolished" Dark Emu or relegated it to being a "flawed attempt".
Pascoe's evidence certainly needs to be tested by specialists, but a couple of points can already be noted. One is that Pascoe is not alone in claiming First Australians farmed. Bill Gammage also made the claim in The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011). For whatever reason, Gammage's claims have not attracted such vehement criticism.
One of Sutton and Walshe's claims is that Pascoe fabricated a claim that a village would have housed 1000 people, because the previous citation of Major Mitchell's diary makes no mention of those numbers. Fabrication seems unlikely. The alternative is that Pascoe failed to cite the source of that particular claim or confused it with another, which would make him guilty of the lesser charge of not conducting "true scholarship". He does cite a number of other observations of quite large villages, and even "towns".
Pascoe was not writing as an academic, he was writing to discredit the old "simple nomad" idea. He would not have struck such a chord if it was widely understood that First Australians' cultures were complex and sophisticated, as Sutton, Walshe and Pascoe all argue, whether or not they involved cultivation.
Sutton and Walshe and the academic reviewers seem to strain to explain the popularity of Dark Emu: for example, that we Whitefellas want absolution, or that the alleged "progress narrative" confirms our preconceptions. They concede Pascoe is a good storyteller, but conclude he is not really up to serious work.
Perhaps there is an explanation that does not patronise either Pascoe or his readers: the growing interest of many Australians in the real story of First Australians, and Pascoe's efforts to further that story, told in an accessible style.
The arguments on both sides need to be critically examined, especially as the topic is controversial. We shall see, but it seems the emu is not being walked backwards yet.
- Dr Geoff Davies is a retired ANU scientist and the author of Dynamic Earth and Desperately Seeking the Fair Go.