July 2021

Arts & Letters

Transforming the national imagination: The ‘Dark Emu’ debate

By James Boyce

Fish traps, Darling River, NSW, 1938

Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s ‘Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?’ challenges ideas of progress championed by Bruce Pascoe

It is strange that, for someone with Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry, Bruce Pascoe largely ignores Tasmania when reimagining pre-conquest Aboriginal life in his publishing sensation, Dark Emu.

It is difficult to know how Pascoe would depict ancestors who shared few of the technologies he celebrates as markers of unheralded Indigenous development. Tasmanian Aboriginal people did not use hoes, plant crops, grind grain, make pottery, sew coats, build dams, construct stone houses or engage in aquaculture. Their way of life was closer to what Dark Emu depicts as “mere hunter-gatherers”.

Associating a sedentary agricultural way of life with cultural progress long predates the 19th century, but this understanding of human history reached a high point during Britain’s imperial expansion. Evangelicals across the empire conducted a never-resolved debate as to whether Christianity or Civilisation must come first in their God-given labour of converting natives from heathen, indolent and wandering ways. But never disputed was that the bedrock of civilisation was agriculture: aboriginal people must learn to till the earth as all men since Adam had been divinely ordered to do. In turn, the remarkably consistent resistance to this civilising endeavour, which in Australia began with Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s failed farms on the shores of Port Jackson, was widely presented as proof that Indigenous Australians could not be civilised and were thus sadly but providentially doomed to die out.

This perspective found a particularly painful provenance in Tasmania during the late 19th century, as social Darwinism gripped the Western mind. What had been a philosophical, legal and religious framework became an objective science, which proved, on the basis of factors such as a limited toolkit size, that distinctively primitive Tasmanians were close to the least-evolved race on the planet.

The “progress” inherent to a move from foraging to farming has been questioned by historians, anthropologists and archaeologists for more than 50 years. It is now well established that there are no guaranteed benefits to transitioning to full-time agriculture. Indeed, it often involved a contraction in diet, shorter lifespans, more disease, greater dependence, less freedom, restricted knowledge, impoverished ritual life and constrained social diversity.

The reality is that there was rarely a sharp line between farming and hunter-gatherer ways of life. Communities incorporated varying levels of both systems according to need, environment, circumstance, belief systems and cultural preference. Nor was the connection between sedentism and farming straightforward: for millennia, a settled existence was more associated with wetland fecundity than sown crops. James C. Scott argues in his fascinating book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, that reliance on grain principally benefited a small elite in centralising states whose power depended on the control and taxation of a predictable and countable harvest, and that popular resistance to this shift was so successful that until about 500 years ago most human beings were still living outside such authoritarian constraints.

The wealth and advantages of a non-agricultural economy have been confirmed by decades of research on pre-conquest Australia. The problem is that few of us can discard deeply entrenched cultural ideas just because we know them to be wrong. I assumed I had progressed from old-fashioned thought until, in researching my first book, Van Diemen’s Land, I found myself astonished to discover newly arrived Britons “regressing” into semi-nomadic hunters who discarded manufactured clothing in favour of kangaroo skin and chose to live in bark huts, while so-called farmers never ploughed, hardly tilled, didn’t fence and also spent much of their time foraging. And long after this revelation, when my research had shifted to a wetland region of England known as the Fens, I was still surprised on learning how fiercely local people upheld their right to forage, fish, roam and hunt in the common marsh, through fighting drainage and enclosure projects designed to turn them into tenant farmers. Resistance to agricultural dependence went on for centuries across Britain. Many ordinary people were transported because of it, having never accepted that “poaching” wild animals was a crime.

Just how entrenched the progress narrative remains in the minds of most Australians has been confirmed by the largely uncritical celebration of Dark Emu.

Pascoe believes that when we “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, it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more”. After decades of studying the consequences of such thought, I am repelled by this proposition but agree there is much at stake in considering it. For Dark Emu has been extraordinarily successful; in seven years it has sold a quarter of a million copies – more books than our most highly regarded historians sell in a lifetime – and its influence only seems to be growing. It has two bestselling children’s editions, is influencing school curriculums and is widely celebrated by respected institutions, from Bangarra Dance Theatre to the ABC. It is not just the volume of sales but the excitement people experience on reading it that suggests there might be more going on for readers than a cultural resonance with old ways of thought.

The transformative influence of Dark Emu means that the release of the first book-length scholarly critique of it, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, can only be welcomed by all who want to discuss the issues it raises outside the nasty platforms of the culture wars.

Sutton, who wrote all but two chapters of Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?, is an anthropologist who has worked for many decades with remote communities, including the Wik people of Cape York. These peoples, like the Tasmanians, did not use most of the technology or undertake the agricultural practices set out by Pascoe, so it is no surprise that Sutton is offended by the implication that non-agricultural societies are less sophisticated or significant, and is critical of the fact that Dark Emu seems to have been written without Indigenous people being asked about the practices and lifestyles of their Old People. No point made in Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? is more poignant than its lament that Pascoe’s reliance on historical sources, especially white explorers’ journals, means that in Dark Emu “the authority of Aboriginal knowledge-holders has been ignored yet again”.

Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? also confirms that most of the technologies and practices supposedly revealed in Dark Emu for the first time since being recorded by explorers and colonisers have been long known and well studied. The more serious concern is that Pascoe takes these local examples and wrongly claims they apply continent wide. Sutton and Walshe suggest that the famous eel traps of western Victoria are unique, the Brewarrina fish traps have no equal in inland river systems and many First Nations peoples did not harvest and grind seeds.

Sutton and Walshe provide an alternative lens through which to consider the way of life of Indigenous Australians. Rather than compare and contrast across cultures, the authors contend that Indigenous communities “had their own way” and this “should be cherished”. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? is critical of Pascoe’s reductionist focus on the material and technological dimension of existence because it obscures the “complexities of Aboriginal mental and aesthetic culture: those highly intricate webs of kinship, mythology, ritual performance, grammars, visual arts and land tenure systems”. The focus of intervention before conquest was “not physical cultivation” but “spiritual propagation” or ritual acts at specific sites that are often referred to as “increase ceremonies”. There was nothing primitive about this. A hunter-gatherer life involved “fine-grained knowledge of hundreds of species and their habitats” – a considerably more complex knowledge system than farmers, whose focus is a few species of flora or fauna, generally require. Sutton and Walshe admit that the now-loaded term “hunter-gatherer” does not do justice to this complexity – especially given that, as in other traditional societies, there was no sharp line between foraging and farming. I doubt their awkward alternative, “hunter-gatherer plus”, will stick. Perhaps it is time to abandon such constructs altogether.

Once the old progress paradigm is rejected, there is no need to engage with the undignified comparisons that plague Dark Emu. Pascoe feels he must explain why some Aboriginal groups don’t have pottery (and those that do haven’t anything to compare with the wonders of other ancient civilisations) only because he believes that it remains “one of the tests applied by Western archaeologists to the developmental level” of culture. So while there weren’t any of the “superb glazed and kiln-fired pottery” found in other parts of the world, “clay vessels were made” and “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civilisation was on a trajectory towards greater and more sophisticated use of pottery”. The convoluted argument that “many of the societies claimed by anthropologists to have left the era of hunter-gathering and joined the march towards agriculture never used any form of pottery” is frankly sad. This is not a discussion an anthropologist would be a part of. It sounds like Pascoe is arguing with an unusually old-fashioned missionary.

The truth is that there is no inherent problem in not having pottery: this is no longer considered “an indicator of social backwardness” because other methods can be effectively and efficiently employed to carry water or prepare food. Why not just present them on their own terms?

Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? would have provided a more effective critique of Dark Emu if its focus had remained on these essentials. When Sutton and Walshe turn to considering the historical record in south-eastern Australia – Pascoe’s favoured locale – their vision shrinks, and some points seem petty or overblown. On two separate occasions, they pour scorn on Pascoe’s perspective on village life in western Victoria by providing low population estimates that would throw doubt on such a characterisation. But it is not known, for example, whether there was a serious smallpox outbreak a generation before the 1835 invasion. And who, aware of the historical context in the Port Phillip District in 1836, would take seriously a “census” count of Aboriginal people undertaken that year? We don’t know how many people lived in the vast grasslands of the Western District before British pathogens and guns arrived, or the full truth of the complex economy constructed around its extraordinarily rich wetlands. And it is wrong to imply that the Wathaurong Briton, William Buckley, fills the gaps with his reminiscences. Better if Sutton, Walshe and Pascoe had left more space for mystery and doubt.

A more serious limitation of Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? is that while the book conclusively demonstrates that Pascoe ignores decades of scholarship, it is less convincing in explaining why this is the case. Sutton and Walshe believe “Pascoe’s information gap as a younger person at school in the 1950s and 1960s” is “projected on to the Australian general population”, and they deny that Indigenous inferiority is, as Pascoe suggests, “the window through which our nation angles its view of Aboriginal Australia”. Their evidence is the wealth of accessible and accurate material, such as the “massive two-volume” and “highly illustrated” Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia.

Pascoe might be wrong about the nature of Australia’s pre-conquest society and economy, but, as the response to the “revelations” in Dark Emu demonstrates, he is surely close to the mark about the ignorance of the nation.

Anthropologists need to accept the humbling fact that the reception to Dark Emu has confirmed that most Australians, including those sufficiently interested and engaged to read a book on the subject, have been little impacted by their work.

What has gone wrong? Why is the way of life of the people of this continent so little known or appreciated despite being the subject of extensive collaborative and, at least in recent decades, respectful research?

This is not primarily an individual failing but a systemic one. While there are scholars who have gone their own heroic way to reach a general audience, the framework by which funding is allotted, academics rewarded and institutional outputs measured does not encourage this endeavour. In highly corporatised university environments, few academics have the time or opportunity to undertake the hard labour required to hone work so it can be widely read. Consequently, most research remains inaccessible, only shared among experts and never likely to contribute to the public conversation. If most Australians are ignorant of decades of scholarship, that is not all Pascoe’s or his readers’ fault.

But there is more involved in this question than boundaries around the ivory tower. A contrast can be drawn here between anthropological study and the documenting of frontier violence. People might not know much detail about the colonial conflict, but a broad outline of what occurred is now so widely accepted that even the so-called history wars have had little impact in changing the new perception. While there is still much work to do, even many conservative politicians now acknowledge that Aboriginal people suffered from violent invasion and fought back in various ways. This cultural shift is the consequence of sustained hard labour by scores of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people inside and outside of the academy, but the role played by historians such as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, whose first and overwhelming concern has been to communicate their research to a general audience, has been critical.

In recent decades, anthropologists and archaeologists have not shown the same level of single-minded determination to get their research into the public domain and transform the national imagination. Clearly it is difficult to sensitively convey complex culture differences. Whose story is it even to tell? But there are sufficient examples to show that collaborative study can be communicated in an accessible style, without dumbing content down. A recent model of this form of writing is Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. Perhaps academics and experts seeking to convey the wonder and complexity of First Nations’ way of life might learn from the success of Dark Emu. Why has this book cut through where other examples of accessible scholarly information cited in Sutton and Walshe’s have not?

The renowned historian Tom Griffiths, writing in Inside Story in 2019, recognised that the key to the success of Dark Emu is that Pascoe is not just a writer but “a performer, an orator, a dedicated storyteller in the old style”. To acknowledge that Dark Emu’s success is not due to the novelty of its insights or the quality of its analysis, but Pascoe’s ability to tell a story that “Australians clearly want to hear”, is not to diminish the work; it is to recognise a significant cultural achievement.

All cultures need stories that inform, nourish and challenge so that people can make sense of the world, understand their past and imagine a better future. For a growing number of Australians who now know that the once-celebrated colonisation of a continent brought violent dispossession, cultural decimation and environmental destruction, the old stories no longer do this. They want to face historical truth but dig deeper into conquered earth – know the past and connect to country. Perhaps it is naive, but I share the hope that new life-giving stories can emerge from engaging with the fullness of Aboriginal culture and heritage, and Australian environmental history. Dark Emu speaks to people for whom Aboriginal Australia remains a foreign country but want this to change.

Dark Emu is not just focused on the past. The final two of its eight chapters are titled “Australian Agricultural Revolution” and “Accepting History and Creating the Future”; Pascoe’s call for change in farming practices and lifestyle choices is also a focus of his many public talks and interviews, as well as his work with the University of Melbourne. Essentially, the author of Dark Emu is proposing a new way of being Australian.

In the recently released Writers on Writers: Stan Grant on Thomas Keneally, Grant critically reflects on Dark Emu’s storytelling power. He depicts Pascoe as a “conjurer” who offers white readers what they “desperately desire: absolution. Through him, they will see their country anew … Through him, the wounds of history will be healed. Just like him, his audience can connect more deeply to this place. They can even imagine themselves as Aboriginal people. Pascoe tells them belonging is in the land and the land is in us.”

In contrast to this relaxed road, Grant seeks to “live with all the pain; with all the broken bits … without certainty”. His is a truer path, but for many people, reading Dark Emu might be a first step to glimpsing such unfathomable reality. The truth is that no one story can provide real meaning or even genuine narrative order to the suffering that reverberates from centuries of conquest. But the paradox is that for non-Indigenous Australians to gain any sense of what words can never describe, accessible but informed stories – shallow as even the best of them may ultimately be – must first be told. Undoubtedly, Dark Emu does not ask much in the way of personal sacrifice, but I doubt Grant is right that readers respond to it so enthusiastically just because Pascoe is telling them, “‘Look, [Aboriginal people] were just like you’: farmers, fishermen, bakers”. Might it just be that the use of familiar language has enabled an initial connection to be made?

The answers set out in Pascoe’s new story might be narrow-minded, but the questions it considers are not. Dark Emu’s deepest resonance is not with a discredited progress narrative, but with matters of the heart.

There are hints in Dark Emu that Pascoe himself is ambivalent about his ideological construct. He claims to be critical of “psychological dependence on our imperialist history” and recognises that “economies were embedded in the prevailing kinship and cosmological systems of particular groups”. These themes are not developed, but the hope is that they still can be.

It is legitimate for settler Australians to be seeking stories about the most urgent question of our times: how to live with integrity on this threatened earth. There will be stupidity and superficiality in this discussion, but it is important to not dismiss the quest. Accessible and nuanced stories are needed to inform not just our understanding of the continent’s past but also the burning conversation about its future.

Almost the only example from Tasmania that Pascoe provides in Dark Emu is a description of water carriers made from bull kelp, which he recognises as “items of enormous beauty. Light shines through them with an amber glow. That they are unknown to most Australians is not an indication of their utility or grace.”

These practical, sustainable and wondrous objects sit completely outside the ceramic sequence once associated with human development. I suspect those who ponder their enormous beauty are part of the same group of seekers who read Dark Emu – a community of folk who, for all our ignorance and limitations, are eager to learn from and engage with First Nations peoples and their heritage. Scholars, artists, authors and experts have a responsibility to honour this communal search through providing carefully crafted, respectful and informed stories. Bruce Pascoe has made a flawed attempt to do this in Dark Emu, but I hope that he, and his critics, never give up on the task.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

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