A review of aspects of the book DARK EMU by Bruce Pascoe 2014. Reviewed here by Clyde Brown.
In his book “Dark Emu”, Bruce Pascoe argues that pre-colonial aboriginals were much more than simple hunter-gatherers and were, living in towns and villages, building houses and dams, altering the course of rivers, tilling the land, sowing crops, which they harvested and stored as well as sewing their own clothes.
At the same time, he claims that they had a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity.
The book has been widely acclaimed and considered factual by a large body of readers, who in the main have little or no knowledge of aboriginal archaeology and have not bothered to research Bruce Pascoe’s claims. A generally dissenting view by some researchers, can be found at: https://www.dark-emu-exposed.org/
Peter O’Brien in his book “Bitter Harvest” undertakes a forensic investigation of Pascoe’s claims in a work covering 251 pages.
Pascoe’s vision of early Australia sits very differently to the views of pre-settlement European castaways, who were kindly taken in by aboriginal tribes and lived sometimes for decades with them, learning their language and observing their living conditions and customs.
Early explorers and settlers also recorded similar information and much more recently, many archaeologists have investigated aboriginal culture and customs, giving the world an insight into ancient human activity in Australia.
There are many works, including books, reports and scientific articles by accredited archaeologists on the subject of aboriginal pre-colonial life in Australia. The one chosen as a main reference here, is titled “Archaeology of the Dreamtime: The Story of prehistoric Australia and its people”. The author, Dr Josephine Flood lectured in archaeology at The Australian National University for many years.
First published in 1983, the book offers a good insight into the topic, giving over 350 references to related publications, most of a scientific nature. In his work, Bruce Pascoe lists around 300 references, many of which come from a broader background.
These two writers come from completely different backgrounds and perspectives. Josephine Flood was a non- political scientist, in the field of archaeology. Bruce Pascoe is a prolific fiction writer and author, who claims to be indigenous. However, the clans he purportedly belongs to, claim that he has no connection with them and are concerned that he is using his supposed aboriginality to aid his book sales.
Literally all of the references cited by both of these authors, give information gained at or after colonial contact and thus, often lack the potential to give an accurate view of aboriginal life and customs in pre-colonial times. However, in a few cases Europeans were taken in by tribes and lived with them, often for years. The view here is that if properly recorded, then their observations (as discussed in the two cases below) represent a very politically uncontaminated view of the aboriginal way of life in these tribes and their domains:
William Buckley was transported as a convict to Port Phillip Bay in around 1803 and escaped to live with a local native tribe. No settlement was made in the bay in 1803 and when Batman and Fawkner did settle there in 1835, Buckley emerged, after 32 years of living the life of an aborigine.
After working for the authorities in Melbourne for a time, Buckley went to Hobart, where he obtained a government job, married and lived for almost 20 years, finally, dying in an accident. His adventures are related and recorded in the book: “The Life and Adventures of William Buckley” 1852 by John Morgan. A later edition, with an introduction by Tim Flannery appeared in 2002.
Buckley’s comments in the book seem very simple and honest. After his escape, he was kindly taken in by a tribe, who considered him a dead relative. He lived with them, meeting and interacting with other tribes, while they wandered over many thousands of square kilometres in western Victoria. It was not an easy life, but he adapted to it as a tribe member. Covering such a huge area, the native lifestyle and customs here, should represent a good snapshot of that which existed in much of southern Australia. His tribe’s way of life is characterised in his own words on p 98, in the following passage, following a meeting with another tribe:
“The tribe which had arrived the last, only remained a few days, when another fight occurred, again about the women – one of whom was killed, and several severely wounded: they then left. We also shifted our quarters a short time later, and kept up the old fancy of wandering about, not exactly from ‘post to pillar’, but from one hunting ground to another, seeking variety of food from fish to flesh, from roots to anything available; for the natives are, in truth, a rambling lot, never content – unless sleeping, and then dreaming of Corroborees, and fights, and mischief.”
The following observations can also be made from Buckley’s descriptions:
- There was no permanent camp or residence, they moved to places where food was known, or found to be available and moved on because it ran out, or they tired of the same diet, or inter- clan fights caused them to relocate.
- Accommodation, was in gunyahs, small round bark or grass covered dwellings, which could sleep a few people. At times they carried the hut building materials with them, from place to place.
- Food was shared, particularly large game. They were excellent hunters and Buckley himself learned to hunt well. Diet included roots, yams and gum from an acacia, dug by the women.
- Clothing was minimal, cloaks of possum skins sewn together, were owned by some, there is no mention of any other sort of clothing.
- Corroborees were popular, fights often followed, murder was not uncommon.
- Cannibalism was not uncommon, often in connection with eating selected parts of enemies killed in battle.
- There were considerable numbers present when tribes gathered together – Buckley recalls some five tribes gathered at one time. Even if there were 100 members in each tribe, then 500 people could have been there. In another instance, he recalls being threatened by a tribe, with 300 or more members. Thus, a gathering of 1,000 or more is quite possible. He never mentions thousands of people together and the gatherings he did witness were certainly not in sedentary settlements. It could be concluded that this area had a very low population density.
- The chief was simply the strongest warrior and he claimed a number of wives.
- Buckley never mentions any type of farming, agriculture or aquaculture.
“The Story of James Morrill” is a small book, compiled by “The Bowen Independent” on behalf of “The Bowen Historical Society”, which was published by the Government Printer in 1863.
James Morrill was a sailor, who was shipwrecked on the great barrier reef and came ashore at Cape Cleveland in 1846, with six other survivors. Some of these including Morrill, were taken in by a local aboriginal tribe where they were well treated, with various survivors placed with different tribes. Within a few years, Morrill was the only survivor left alive. The others could not adjust to the harsh conditions.
He learned the language and how to hunt and became a useful tribe member. After 17 years, the advancing colonial frontier moved into his tribal area and he walked into an outstation and back into civilization again in 1863.
Going to live in Bowen, Morrill married, had a son and obtained Government work, at one stage working on the founding of Cardwell. The hard bush life had affected his health and he died in Bowen in 1865 at the relatively young age of 41 years.
James Morrill’s gift to the world is his reporting of the life and customs of these North Queensland aboriginal tribes, prior to white settlement. He reported that his tribe was one of about 10 in the region, which seemed to stretch from north of Rockhampton to Townsville and inland into the Burdekin catchment. These tribes made up well over one thousand people in all, however, he never mentions a population of thousands of people.
Morrill developed strong friendships with some tribe members and comments on numerous aspects of aboriginal life, including initiation ceremonies, native food and the language. Although not very long, it is a really good summation. Some of the ways in which they lived, appear in his own words below:
“They never stay long in a locality, as one place becomes a little exhausted of food they travel to another. In the wet season they put up small gunyahs to live in, but in no particular order. They live in tribes, each tribe speaking a different dialect – it can hardly be called a different language; I speak eight of these dialects. They have no chiefs – the strongest is the best man.”
“Human flesh cannot be considered part of their food, although they sometimes eat it. They eat young men killed in battle, or if killed by accident, also young women and children, but never those of their enemies. They cut their enemies up in strips, dry them, and distribute the pieces through the tribe, by which means they think they have their enemy’s strength added to their own, and they will be lucky in hunting and fishing.”
The following conclusions are made, considering the information above:
- Tribes discussed by Morrill were not sedentary – they travelled around from place to place depending on the availability of food and the season.
- Accommodation was in small gunyahs, particularly in the wet season.
- Food was quite varied and from his descriptions, came from different localities at different times of the year.
- Clothing was minimal, Morrill does not suggest much was in use.
- Corroborees were important along with initiation ceremonies.
- Cannibalism was practised, mainly on those killed in battle.
- Large numbers of people were present at inter-tribal gatherings – he recalls that well over 1,000 were present at one. However, given the huge area he suggests that they came from, it implies a very low population density overall. He is not talking about thousands of people, nor does he ever mention permanent settlements.
- Morrill never mentions any type of farming, or agriculture or aquaculture – the aboriginals seemed to find enough to eat simply by moving from place to place.
A discussion of comparative views on Bruce Pascoe’s main claims follows:
Towns, Villages and Aquaculture:
These terms imply continuous occupation, by a sedentary population. Professor Flood, pp243-244 discusses work on sites, where circular stone bases of dwellings were found and concludes that although numbers of these can occur close together, they may well differ in age of building and occupancy, by people coming and going, over many years. Sites with eel and fish traps involving stone work may be extensive, but would have been built in sections, over many years, possibly millennia, with nearby campsites occupied accordingly. It is claimed that channel and dam building near Lake Condah in Victoria, was underway around 8,000 years ago. If this is correct, then even a few workers each year could construct a huge complex over this vast time span.
The eel fishing sites near lake Condah in Victoria, were according to Tim Flannery, located in Buckley’s tribal area. Buckley says that they tired of this diet and often moved on, for more variety.
There is a substantial eel fishing industry in Victoria today, but no farming. The wild eels are simply caught in nets. Modern aquaculture has shown, that because of their lifestyle, eels are extremely difficult to farm, even using modern laboratory technology. Eels do not breed in Victoria, with the adults migrating from there, to the areas around the great barrier reef, where they spawn, with their offspring eventually making their way back to Victorian rivers and creeks.
Thus, the science of aquaculture, which involves the cultivation and breeding of ells was impossible in Victoria. Furthermore, trapping of eels by directing them into man made rock enclosures and hunting and gathering them in nets, falls well short of actual aquaculture, as that science is known today.
Rock enclosures on creeks and rivers, are flushed with floods which occur in most years, often more than once, with any “stock” being lost downstream, or upstream, depending on which way they decide to swim. The same can be said of inland river fishing traps, which were flushed by floods regularly, making any “farming” impossible, while allowing hunting and gathering, when the streams were low.
It is interesting to watch children, who are taken on a picnic beside a running stream, with a stoney bottom. Often, with no instruction, they will begin redirecting water, by building channels and dams and cornering and catching tadpoles, guppies or yabbies, depending on what is available. This type of response is common to all humans and is hauntingly similar to the adult behaviour mentioned above.
In northern Australia there are very extensive stone fish traps, which are used to contain fish in pools when the tide falls. Often, the tidal variation is considerable, so any retained fish “stock” can easily escape at high tide, which occurs twice a day. Thus, fish farming or aquaculture in any practical sense is impossible, with a catch which is hunted and gathered at low tide, or with small woven fish traps.
Aboriginals came together in clan gatherings at times and early explorers reported some of these, with 1,000 people or more present but there is no real evidence of permanent occupation, rather, meetings at seasonal events such as eel fishing, or nut or insect gathering. There is no real evidence of large populations present. Constant movement of tribes from place to place could easily give explorers a view that the population was larger, as they came across abandoned shelters and saw signs of occupation. They often assumed that the occupiers had fled when they had simply moved on to the next hunting ground.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of colonial invasion and settlement, is that it was not actively opposed more widely and that in turn, suggests that settlers entered a landscape, often largely devoid of people and that there was no overall organisation of the tribes affected.
A little recognised feature of the Australian landscape, is the huge amount of stone debris left over the millennia, by wandering aboriginals. Much of this material, is as flakes from larger rocks, spear tips, core stones and occasionally, scrapers, axe heads, hand axes and grinding stones. Made mainly from flint or quartzite, these can last for tens of thousands of years on the surface and give the impression, of a large population present. The other obvious view, is that a small population over a very long time, can cause the same result.
The process of hunting animals by setting fire to bushland is constantly referred to as firestick farming. A look at the Wikipedia definition of farming reveals this as:
“Farming is growing crops or keeping animals by people for food and raw materials. Farming is a part of agriculture.”
The primary aim of using fire was to hunt and hence this activity should be called hunting. There is a lot of disagreement over the role of fire in shaping the Australian landscape. Fossil charcoal studies, suggest that simple climate variation from cold to hot over time, may be more important than fire. Lightning strikes cause many natural fires and have always occurred, without any intervention by humans. Many of the devastating bushfires in 2019-2020 were caused by lightning, not humans.
There is a huge amount of documentation describing and or illustrating traditional aboriginal dwellings throughout Australia. All this information allows any informed observer, to conclude that all of these can be described as primitive dwellings, known by names, such as, gunyah, humpy, wurley, mia-mia and others. Billions of people worldwide, live in houses and would not consider any of these primitive dwellings as houses, if asked to live in one. An internet search for photos of hovels, shows various poorly built or derelict houses and includes photos of grass huts, which look very like gunyahs.
The most advanced gunyah was dome shaped, with a round base, which occasionally consisted of a circle of stones. The frame above was made of bent tree branches and covered with grass, bark or leaves and rarely, a mud coating was applied over this. Most were of very simple construction and were small, with an average size dwelling, around 180cm high by 240cm in diameter at the base. Some larger bases with rounded or curved walls have been seen and these, seem to be absolute exceptions to the normal type.
The round rock bases of gunyahs, which are much more resistant to erosion in some areas, may sit on the landscape for a vast amount of time, with no proof of their relative age, in places where they are numerous. Thus, occupancy could be by small numbers, over different times.
Permanent towns or villages can only exist where there is an adequate food supply. While activities like fishing could supply food for many, the staples of aboriginal diet require food gathered by women. Large permanent settlements would soon exhaust these other staples over a wide area, forcing people to move on.
Professor Flood, p253, considers that agriculture did not exist in Australia prior to white settlement. Below, are some excerpts from her work:
“It has long been remarked that Australia remained a nation of nomadic-hunter gatherers, while most people in the rest of the world, including New Guinea, became cultivators. Other traits of the Neolithic period, such as the domestication of animals and the use of pottery were never adapted in Australia. These traits never penetrated the fifth continent.”
After discussing agriculture in New Guinea, which began around 9,000 years ago, with introduced taro grown by extensive irrigation in hand-dug ditches and the keeping of introduced pigs, she comments:
“Possible reasons put forward to explain why Australian Aborigines did not become farmers have been lack of contact with agricultural groups, cultural conservatism, hostility to newcomers, lack of suitable plants and animals to domesticate, and deliberate choice.”
On page 254, after considering that in the 1000 km from New Guinea to Cooktown the climate is relatively uniform, Professor Flood notes:
“Yet across this vast tract there is a gradient from the horticulturalists of New Guinea with their pottery, pigs and fenced gardens, to the nomadic hunter gatherers of Australia with none of those things.”
In relation to the practice of burying yam tendrils, after the yams had been dug out and planting some on offshore islands, p259, she states:
“This is certainly plant tending and management, if not quite agriculture. True agriculture would have produced a higher yield per plant, but would have involved the labour of tilling the ground.”
Wild millet seed or panicum was harvested in inland Australia, usually by pulling the plants out by the roots, stacking them and shaking the seed off when dry. The seeds were then ground with stone tools and cooked as cakes. Professor Flood, p261, states that in one area in Queensland, stone knives were used to harvest and that this could be considered a semi-agricultural practice.
While Panicum and nardoo seeds were widely used as food, particularly in dry times, the actual amount harvested in relation to the total amount available, was miniscule. Huge parts of inland Australia are covered with it in good times and any notion that species were improved by selective breeding is farcical. Contamination by other surrounding wild stock was relentless and on-going, with wild seed carried by water, wind and animals from the huge wild stock supplies, surrounding any harvested areas.
There is no evidence that aboriginals tilled the soil to grow seed crops. In most years there was more than enough wild seed available and hence no need for tilling. They had no means of tilling, other than with wooden digging sticks. To engage in what would amount to broad-acre tilling, would have been a pointless exercise and there is no evidence of it anyway.
Some storage of grain and other food was undertaken by aboriginals and this is a universal and natural human trait, to provide for the future. It’s also widely practiced by other animals, like squirrels, hamsters and jays caching nuts and fruit, and foxes and dogs burying meat. Butcher birds and shrikes store a larder on thorn bushes. Bees and ants are well known to store food for themselves and their young, while hornets catch and anesthetise a larder of insects, which they store in mud nests, for their young.
This trait is so deeply embedded in human kind and the animal world that it would be more surprising if aboriginals had not stored a variety of foodstuffs.
Professor Flood’s comments on p265 seem pertinent:
“The people of these inland riverine plains were, therefore, really the only people in temperate Australia, who could have become cereal farmers. Their exploitation of wild millet has been called ‘incipient agriculture’ and it provided about 30% of their diet, but they did not take the final steps of tilling the soil, planting seed and storing the surplus food produced. No doubt the labour involved in tilling and planting outweighed the possible advantages. The Bagundji (Darling Basin tribes) found after a long period of experimentation, that by hunting and gathering a wide range of foods and by using a sophisticated array of highly specialised techniques, their labours ensured a maximum return of food.”
In summation, the work by Professor Flood was really a collective view, written down by her after a lifetime of scientific study in her field. It’s hard to say that she had any political view here at all. She certainly admired aboriginal people and was intensely interested in unravelling their long history in Australia in a truthful and honest way.
Professor W.E.H.Stanner, an archaeologist and an early activist for Aboriginal rights, was writing in the 1950’s and was later admired and endorsed by such Aboriginal activists as Henry Reynolds, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton. His succinct description of Aboriginal society comes ringing down the years in his own words:
“They are of course, nomads — hunters and foragers who grow nothing, build nothing, and stay nowhere long. They make almost no physical mark on the environment. Even in areas which are still inhabited, it takes a knowledgeable eye to detect their recent presence. Within a matter of weeks, the roughly cleared camp-sites may be erased by sun, rain and wind. After a year or two there may be nothing to suggest that the country was ever inhabited. Until one stumbles on a few old flint-tools, a stone quarry, a shell-midden, a rock painting or something of the kind, one may think the land had never known the touch of man.”
It is truly surprising, that if the civilization of pre-colonial aboriginals was as advanced as Bruce Pascoe claims, that this was not revealed in the huge amount of scientific and archaeological evidence that has been accumulated in the 240 years or so, since white settlement. Scientists and archaeologists are usually very thorough, in the way they research and report their findings. That they could stumble over an advanced civilization and mistakenly conclude, that it was stone age, would be truly amazing.
Bruce Pascoe’s book is a mine of information, as it mulls over work provided by explorers, pastoralists, archaeologists and many others. This information, is directed time and time again, to the notion that the colonisers or invaders and their successors, have really misunderstood, or failed to see at all, the extremely advanced civilization that existed in pre-colonial Australia.
In the last ice age Australia and New Guinea were one continent, known as Sahul, for long periods of time between 25,000 and 7,000 years ago, so any discussion of early agriculture in the region should consider both. It has to be said however, that Bruce Pascoe never actually compares the Australian civilization to other native civilizations, operating at the same time, in New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Indonesia and other adjacent countries. These easily and indisputably pass the tests of housing, clothing, pottery making, irrigated crop farming and livestock keeping, while their citizens were obviously living sedentary lives in villages or towns.
It’s worth keeping in mind, that while aboriginals were constructing dams, channels and fish traps at Lake Condah and its surrounds (so embraced as advanced technology by Bruce Pascoe), these works pale into insignificance, when compared to the unquestionable irrigated farming in New Guinea, New Caledonia, The Solomon Islands, Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific. Here, hand-dug irrigation ditches and terraces to grow taro and other crops would, if placed end to end, extend for hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres, all dug in the same historical time frame by actual farmers.
The constant belittling of work which disagrees with his proposals, and the almost endless rumination, of how, in his view, the results of colonisation were so damaging, is tiring. The book can be viewed as a Grievance Study, with a strong identity and political agenda.
Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020), in their work on Cynical Theories, show the position of this type of work as it relates to postmodern “Social Justice Theory”, wherein “Theory” advocates using identity politics to dismantle, cancel and deny information and often the truth, (in this case vast archaeological and historical archives in libraries), in the name of their version of Social Justice. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s work explains in detail how an aberration such as Dark Emu can appear in an environment where the slightest criticism of aboriginals or of their past culture will lead to social network shaming of the offender by warriors of the “woke”. It may well explain why the archaeological scientific community has offered little criticism of Pascoe’s work.
In conclusion, the stories of the castaways, William Buckley and James Morrill, indicate that living in pre-colonial Australia was certainly no utopia. Violence was always close at hand, murder was not uncommon, with a payback murder often following. Many of the arguments were over women. Tribal wars were savage and enemies killed in battle were often eaten. Food was varied, but often became boring and caused groups to move around, as they had no permanent place to call home. Women were treated as chattels, with children often given away by their parents as child brides. Unwanted children were sometimes killed, particularly in poorer seasons.
Even compared to the rough living conditions of the incoming invading settlers, many pre-colonial aboriginals led a hazardous and uncertain existence.
Bowen Historical Society: “The Story of James Morrill”, W.H.Darwen and Sons, “The Bowen Independent” published by The Government Printer 1863.
Flood, Josephine, “Archaeology of the Dreamtime”, Angus and Robertson, revised edition 1995.
Morgan, John, “The Life and Adventures of William Buckley”, Printed and Published by Archibald Macdougall, 1852. Reprinted with a foreword by Tim Flannery, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2009.
O’Brien, Peter, “Bitter Harvest, The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu”, Quadrant Books, Sydney, 2019.
Pascoe, Bruce, “Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture”, Magabala Books, Broome, new edition, 2018.
Pluckrose, Helen and Lindsay, James: “Cynical/Critical Theories”, Pitchstone Publishing, USA, 2020.
Stanner, W.E.H. “The Dreaming and Other Essays”, with an introduction by Robert Manne, Angus and Robertson 2011.
Clyde Brown, the author of the above article, is a palaeontologist and a metals and gemstone geologist with a wide experience in the Australian landscape, its landforms and associated archaeological artefacts. He has travelled, worked and explored in every State and The Northern Territory. The recognition of artefacts on the ground is important in distinguishing the provenance of field materials. This work never uncovered any works remotely connected with a civilization as described by Pascoe.
While having no professional qualifications in archaeology the author considers archaeology to broadly equate to the palaeontology of humans and this led to his interest in the matter.
It is apparent that Bruce Pascoe is not an archaeologist. He can be best described as a fiction writer who is aboriginal-obsessed, with an extensive list of publications and books dealing with tales of fiction relating almost entirely to the one general topic, namely aboriginals and grievance with their lot. This obsession has extended to his claim to have aboriginal ancestry. Many aboriginals have denied this claim and he has not been able to prove an actual genetic link.
Peter O’Brien, is the author of “Bitter Harvest, a forensic dissection”, which is critical of Dark Emu. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army, with a Science Degree and wide business experience. He is not an archaeologist, however he has good literary skills and is a thorough investigator.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the publication of “Dark Emu” is that the work has been lauded and awarded literary prizes by politically active persons who have no particular archaeological skills.
What yardstick did these persons use to consider the work as believable?