Dark Emuby Published 01 Jan 1970
Dark Emu puts forward an argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer tag for precolonial 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. Gerritsen and Gammage in their latest books support this premise but Pascoe takes this further and challenges the hunter-gatherer tag as a convenient lie. Almost all the evidence comes from the records and diaries of the Australian explorers, impeccable sources.
"Dark Emu" Reviews
“Imagine you are riding beside the explorer and surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855). He’s an educated and sensitive man and would have been great company, if a little eccentric.”
I’ll say! Pascoe has written often about Aboriginal history, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. He has included extensive references to original diaries and papers as well as to research. There are several photos, but the ones I’ve included here are from other sources.
I’ve read some of this information in Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, and I am still gob-smacked that mainstream history hasn’t yet seriously amended its description of the Aboriginal culture of “colonial” times as nomadic and stone-age.
To compound the insult, colonists who ran across structures of some kind decided they were evidence of earlier European settlement, which meant they were just “repossessing” what was rightfully theirs. But diaries and reports of the first explorers show clearly that the local indigenous people were well established across the continent.
“Mitchell also records his astonishment at the size of the villages. He noticed:
‘. . . some huts...being circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fires appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.’
He counts the houses and estimates a population of over one thousand. He’s disappointed that nobody’s home, it’s obvious they have only just left and the evidence is everywhere that they have used the place for a very long time.
One of Mitchell’s party comments that the building were, ‘of very large dimensions, one capable of containing at least 40 persons and of very superior construction.’”
Sketch by Owen Stanley on HMS Rattlesnake c. 1848
[An example not from Pascoe's book]
Just imagine someone moving into your house as Mitchell did during his travels, saying the building was quite comfortable, while you go and hide in the bushes. Unthinkable.
There are also well-documented tales of local Aboriginal people stepping in to save injured and starving explorers who think they are charting unknown territory. To be fair, it was unknown . . . to them.
But the Aboriginal people across the continent knew the country well and how to look after these lost souls. They also knew each other and traded and shared their songlines, which are a complex system of stories, history, maps, wayfinding, such that there were people from one area who could describe how to find something in an area they’d never visited. I’m not sure many people today could describe such a journey without resorting to technology or at least recording details in writing.
The first book I remember reading about Australian history was called something like Cooper’s Creek, about the Dig Tree and the shambles that was the Burke and Wills expedition. With them was Charlie King, who was rescued by the local Aboriginal people and stayed with them long enough to father a child. I’m still not sure what book it was, but it sparked my interest enough to want to migrate, and I did.
This book I enjoyed for the information about the harvesting and storage of crops, the wells, the dams, the building - all the hallmarks of a settled civilisation. The people had settled everywhere, even the arid deserts thought to be empty, yet they were dismissed as vermin to be hunted to extinction. Unforgiveable.
The drawing made by the junior artist Petit, first appeared in 1807 in Peron, Lesueur and Petit's Atlas [Also not from Pascoe's book]
This is an informative, infuriating, slim book of a history that deserves to be spread LOUDLY far and wide. I’m glad to see the Bangarra Dance Company is putting on a production of Dark Emu as I write. https://www.bangarra.com.au/whatson/p...
Anyone interested in following up to see more photos might like to visit: http://nationalunitygovernment.org/co...
For a current discussion of the subject, see The Conversation. This isn’t going to go away.
When world-famous Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was asked on a US radio show about Aboriginal people in her country, she replied: "The thing about Aboriginal people is they don't believe in living in enclosed structures, houses... They all want to live under the stars because that's their culture, even now... The government build houses and the Aboriginal people trash them and take the beds outside cos they don't believe in houses and they want to live under the stars." Perhaps the rapper - who later became the first artist since the Beatles 50 years ago to hold the top two spots on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart with their first hits - should read this book. Prolific Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe's "Dark Emu" extensively documents not only pre-colonial Aboriginal housing, but also engineering, fishing and farming methods. Here are some quotes that jumped out at me:
Many northern Australian museums display long, knife-like implements, which usually bear legends such as 'of unknown use' when in fact they are juan knives - long sharp blades of stone with fur-covered handles, which the explorer Gregory described the Aboriginal people using to cut down the grain.
As one of Australia's most senior archaeologists confided to me after struggling to gain official interest in her excavation of a sophisticated village site in the Murray River region, it is easier for Australian archaeologists to get research grants overseas than for undertaking new areas of research in Australia.
[Quoting explorer Charles Sturt:] [I]n walking along one came to a village consisting of nineteen huts... Troughs and stones for grinding seed were lying about... The fact of there being so large a well at this point... assured us that this distant part of the interior... was not without inhabitants.
[M]ost of the tool workshops associated with these constructions, as well as the constructions themselves, still do not appear on the archaeological register of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.
King, on the doomed Burke and Wills expedition, found a storage of grain in an Aboriginal house, which he estimated at four tons.
[T]he mounds proved to be gigantic ovens for the cooking of the compung rush.
Norman Tindale... estimated the milling techniques to be around 18,000 years old, an age which, if it is true, re-writes the history of world agriculture.
We are at the beginning - not the end - of understanding pre-colonial history...
After studying Aboriginal yields from yam daisies it is easy to imagine a potato farmer turning over part of his farm to yam, thus avoiding the need to use fertiliser and herbicides.
Latz says that, 'the nutritional value of the seeds from the desert species is equal to or better than that of the cultivated grains'.
Dargin included some wonderful drawings and photographs from the early contact period and these are crucial to our understanding of the hydrology given that more recent photographs show a system compromised by channels for steamboats, levelled areas for regattas, fords and roads.
Rupert Gerritsen's important work was similarly bound and, for want of Australian interest, had to be published in London. Both his work and Dargin's are indicative of Australia's nonchalance to important considerations of Aboriginal culture.
Some Lake Condah fishery sites were seriously damaged after John Howard, Australian Prime Minister at the time, panicked farmers into believing they'd all be ruined by Native Title claims.
The reluctance to credit engineered fisheries to colonised peoples, and thus underrate their sovereignty of the land, is not peculiar to Australia.
[I]f they were houses, and if the channels were a fishing system, then around 10,000 people lived a more or less sedentary life in this town.
The Victorian Archaeological Survey seemed to be restricted by their own assumptions of Aboriginal development in the same way that so many pokers and prodders of Aboriginal culture seem not to have read the explorers' diaries. If they had, surely they would have gone further than the study of the kangaroo spear and the digging stick in their analysis of Aboriginal economies.
... Sturt's description of the evening whirring of hundreds of mills grinding grain into flour.
[W]e have all but ignored ethnographic evidence of Aboriginal engineering.
Aboriginals are now seen as poachers simply because the shellfish is so enormously valuable. When it was 'mutton fish' they were allowed to harvest as much as they wanted. Today they are gaoled for pursuing their traditional harvest.
The early history of Australia is crowded with references to Aboriginal watercraft and fishing techniques. Yet Australians remain strangely impervious to that knowledge and the Aboriginal economy in general.
[T]he observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material.
The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.
Collecting such a welter of evidence might seem a tedious excess to some readers but reference to Aboriginal housing is so remote from the Australian consciousness that, on reading of one or two examples, people might be encouraged to see them as aberrations.
Permanent housing was a feature of the Aboriginal economy and marked the movement towards agricultural reliance.
Sturt was doing it tough among the savages alright. New house, roast duck and cake!
Several villages were located near Birdsville, south-west Queensland, where today the remoteness and inhospitable nature of the land is mythologised as the desolate Outback. Many Australians find it hard to imagine the area as a once productive and healthy environment for large numbers of Aboriginal people.
On seeing houses built to accommodate forty people in groups of fifty or more both explorers resort to words like huts or hovels to describe buildings which in rural Ireland would have been called croft houses.
People here were not clinging on to survival in the desert; they were thriving and engaged in a rich and joyful life.
Mitchell is sensitive to the quality of the houses but insensitive to his occupation of someone else's residence. He occupied empty houses on many occasions and liberties of this kind were likely to have ruptured the relationship between white and black more severely than any action other than physical attack.
Gerritsen comments: The suppression, or discouragement of public disclosure of permanent settlements and more sedentary existence may have been yet another factor contributing to a distortion in historical information abut relevant groups and hence modern understandings... The suspicion is that there was intent to discredit evidence of permanent settlements because of the implications this may have had for the morality and legality of the colonial dispossession.
On the Darling River, explorers saw similar towns to those seen by Sturt and Mitchell and estimated the population of each to be no less than a thousand. Peter Dargin estimated the population of the region as 3,000 but the journals of Sturt, Mitchell and others reveal that they passed many such populous villages. These figures strongly contradict both current and past assumptions of a sparsely populated pre-colonial land.
At Mallacoota in 1842 Joseph Lingard met two Aboriginal men and, 'made bold to go into their retreat, which I found to be like a house inside'.
[Robinson] reported that the walls and rooves of the beehive, or kraal, type were so substantial that they were strong enough 'for a man on horseback to ride over'. One wonders how that observation was proven and what the owners of the house might have thought of the experiment.
The underestimation of Indigenous achievement was a deliberate tactic of British colonialism.
Burial within cemeteries is another of the indicators of sedentism recognised by archaeologists and abundant examples are provided in explorers' journals.
The importance of examining this material is to dissuade a common Australian perception that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people built nothing more complex than a piece of bark leaning on a stick.
While we continue to think of Aboriginal people having no construction skills it is easier to dismiss Aboriginal attachment to land.
Mitchell hit upon the impediment that inhibits control burns in the Australian landscape today. Farm fences.
The only yam plants to be found today are on railway verges and other lands fenced off from livestock and where no superphosphate has been used.
Daryl Tonkin, long-term resident of the country near Drouin in West Gippsland, remembers the catastrophic fires of 1939, which he attributed to the increasing reluctance of the Europeans to burn and the habit of leaving the heads of felled trees unburnt.
[Edward Curr:] '[T]he blackfellow was constantly setting fire to the grass and trees... he tilled his land and cultivated his pasture with fire'.
[Tim Flannery:] As the term firestick farming suggests, the Aboriginal use of fire resembled agriculture in some ways: it yielded certain crops at certain times, suppressed weeds and was carefully contolled...
[G]rassland production has been used as a lure to kangaroos and emus but, primarily, to keep stock away from deliberate plantings of grain and tuber crops.
The existence of infrastructure, houses, fences, outbuildings and power lines complicates the adoption of a similar method but does not prevent it. We just have to think differently about the country.
The belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession.
If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.
[T]he skills employed to bring about the longest lasting pan-continental stability the world has known must be investigated because they might become Australia's greatest export.
Of all the systems humans have devised to manage their lives on earth Aboriginal government looks most like the democratic model.
Aboriginal people did not 'advance' like Europeans but it is also true the idea to pour boiling oil on enemies seems not to have occurred to anyone in Australia.
[Linguist Terry] Crowley admits that Australian languages are probably 40,000 to 60,000 years old, but even at 10,000 years they would be older than most other world languages.
Schoolchildren are taught that witchetty grubs were a major food source almost as if there is a deliberate attempt by educationalists to emphasise the gross and primitive. Imagine, instead, re-educating the nation and utilising the two major crops of Australia: yams (as well as other root vegetables) and grains.
A 100g sample of Microseris lanceolata tubers would provide 3-4 times the energy level of a 100g potato.
Human survival on a healthy planet is not a soft liberal pipe dream; it is sound global management and the deepest of religious impulses.
Encouraging full participation of Aboriginal people is not a simple task of handing out fluorescent vests to work in a billionaire's mine but requires a conversation with Aboriginal people about the future of the country.
Accepting the best white man is the final stage in the colonisation of Australia.
I debated for a long time on whether or not I should properly review this. I didn’t really feel like I could adequately review a book of non-fiction without sounding like a total noob. But at the end of the day, I may be a noob, but this work explores a lot of really important issues about aboriginal culture and land pre-colonisation and I think it’s really important that people are at least aware that this knowledge exists and is publicly available.
In saying that however, 1) I haven’t rated it and, 2) it’s going to be fairly short. Both because of aforementioned noob status, but also because I don’t think it’s particularly fair to rate a non-fiction work. Me rating it isn’t exactly going to change the fact that it’s all true.
Anyway, I found this book to be a very, very interesting read. It’s amazing how humans can fool themselves into believing their own preconceived notions. Reading this simultaneously amazed and disgusted me just for the fact that people were so arrogant back then. I mean, we still are. Bloody white people think the world was served on a silver platter for them.
Ahem. I think that at the end of the day, this book made me reconsider my own bias of indigenous culture, and reflect on what I was taught in school about the colonisation of Australia. Which mainly seems to be that aborigines ‘needed’ the civilised culture westerners forced offered them. In fact, it seems to me that aboriginal people seemed to be doing just fine on their own before we came along.
Overall, I think this was a really important book. And if you can go in with an open mind, I think you’ll be very surprised.
In "Dark Emu" the author, Bruce Pascoe, refers to some other books discussing land use in Australia pre-European intrusion. I've read Bill Gammage's "The Biggest Estate on Earth" and thoroughly enjoyed its challenge to read our landscape differently.
Bruce Pascoe has Bunurong/Tasmanian Heritage and brings a more overtly political and personal approach to the question of how humans have managed and lived in the Australian country through the millennia.
The book isn't long, and I'm not going to try to summarise it. It's a challenge to look at the past with new eyes, and so, to see possibilities in the future. Possibilities of native food farming, ecological management, conservation of sacred and archaeological sites, and pride in a sustainable lifestyle heritage.
The use of European records to show how they saw the country and the people living in it at first contact is fascinating. There were villages, yam growing (side note: the yam daisy tubers sound delicious), fish processing, so many activities beyond and in addition to what we think of as a hunter-gatherer society -- which is Bruce Pascoe's argument.
I learned a lot reading "Dark Emu", from the small stuff to ongoing questions. For instance, I had no idea Australia had it's own red rice, or that it's being studied, and what research like that means.
We understand and live in our world according to the filters (preconceptions) we apply. Perhaps the world is more wondrous and more enduring than we've thought.
This Christmas I visited a friend who gave me two precious things: a copy of Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu and an envelope of seeds from the daisy yam, Microsceris lanceolata, known as “murnong" in the Boonwurrung language.
Dark Emu begins by challenging the received historical wisdom about Australian Aboriginal peoples which says that they were hunter-gatherers who lived opportunistically in a kind of harsh subsistence at the hands of nature. Pascoe argues that this description suited early settlers who wanted to see indigenous people as passive and childlike; unable to take responsibility for the land on which they wandered and undeserving of its possession.
By contrast, Pascoe shows a very different indigenous relationship to land and nature. Working systematically through early white accounts of contact with Aboriginal people and their land, Pascoe shows how accomplished Aboriginals were as farmers.
The daisy yam is a case in point. This highly nutritious tuber grew prolifically across much of southern Australia and was common in the areas south of Melbourne where I grew up. It is now rare. Within a few short years of white settlement in the mid 19th century, sheep had almost completely wiped it out.
It’s easy to take this history at face value and conclude that it was an unfortunate but relatively inconsequential side effect of agricultural development which caused the demise of the daisy yam. What this surface analysis hides is a much more complex understanding of the farming practices of Aboriginal people. When white settlers arrived, they saw an environment which they often described as “park-like”. Early descriptions I have read of the Mornington Peninsula talk about its open grasslands reminiscent of an English park. As a kid on weekend hikes battling my way through the thick scrub of the Otway Ranges, I remember being amazed to recall the stories of an elderly neighbour who had grown up in the area. He talked about the descriptions of the early bushmen who described the area as open and grassed, shaded by the enormous eucalypts that now were just stumps amid a younger generation of regrowth.
Pascoe shows that it wasn’t just sheep and logging that changed the environment but a loss of indigenous farming practices. Aboriginal people systematically burned and managed the environment to produce food sources when and where they needed them. The daisy yam requires a loose, friable soil and the harvesting practices supported regrowth and soil conservation in a form of sustainable agriculture which modern Australian farmers are only beginning to understand. Sheep ate the yams, but what was far more destructive was their trampling of the earth which prevented regrowth. Within a few years, parklands were replaced with compacted soils which encouraged erosion and supported far fewer animals - including sheep. Indigenous populations collapsed and their complex management of the land ended.
This story alone would make Dark Emu a compelling and important book to read but Pascoe’s analysis goes further:
"Some say the idea that the world trajectory is driven by conquest followed by innovation and intensification is satisfying to the Western mind because of our psychological dependence on our imperialist history. But if we give consideration to the idea that change can be generated by the spirit and through that to political action, then the stability of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture might be more readily explained. (p.136)"
In the later part of the book, Pascoe explores visions and versions of what it means to live well. Against the history of Western imperialism, Pascoe contrasts at least 40,000 years of carefully evolved environmental understandings deeply embedded in the cultural practices of Indigenous Australians. As the world looks forward to a more sustainable future through aspirations like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Dark Emu is a timely contribution to alternative views of history and a reminder that much of the knowledge we need may already exist.
I have passed my seeds on to a colleague who will grow them with students at UWCSEA as part of a project to support natural diversity. I’m not hopeful that these temperate climate seeds will grow in the tropics of Singapore, but I hope to do my best to nurture the story they represent.