Flat White

A straw man defence of Dark Emu

2 February 2022

4:00 AM

2 February 2022

4:00 AM

Recently in a comment thread, a Spectator Australia reader took me to task for claiming in the promotion for my book Bitter Harvest – the illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, that:

Pascoe postulates that rather than being a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, Australian Aborigines were actually sedentary agriculturalists with ‘skills superior to those of the white colonists who took their land and despoiled it’.

My interlocutor claimed that I had constructed a straw man argument and that Pascoe had not made this claim but had merely highlighted that Aboriginal culture was more sophisticated than mainstream Australians had given it credit for.

I could not let that go unchallenged because this is a defence of Pascoe that has been deployed by a number of his cheer squad, notably in the aftermath of the release of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers – the Dark Emu debate by anthropologist Dr Peter Sutton and archaeologist Dr Kerryn Walshe.

It is a straw man defence that has allowed incurious cheerleaders to gloss over the fact that Drs Sutton and Walshe described Dark Emu as ‘not a scholarly work’ or the fact that I have methodically checked almost all of his sources and proved that he has deliberately misquoted or misrepresented them.

Despite taking what should have been massive hull damage below the waterline, the good ship Bruce Pascoe sails serenely on, kept afloat by the strenuous bailing activity of, inter alia, the ABC, and Wikipedia.

So let me put the evidence that Pascoe did make extravagant claims about Aboriginal culture. The back cover blurb for Dark Emu tells us:

Pascoe puts forward a compelling argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial 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.

In other words, Pascoe was rejecting the notion that Aborigines were predominantly hunter-gatherers. In fact, as I show in my book, the evidence Pascoe is able to amass does not support that conclusion. He provides plenty of evidence that Aborigines harvested native grasses and tubers such as murnong. But that is just as true of hunter-gatherer societies. What would distinguish hunter-gatherers from agriculturalists would be sowing of seed. Pascoe provides only three instances of Aboriginal people being observed sowing seed. They all occur in the twentieth century and they are all small scale broadcast by hand. Sutton and Walshe describe this as spiritual propagation. In other words, it is a ceremony designed to petition the spirit ancestors to send them a plentiful supply of food.

The ABC, one of Pascoe’s staunchest defenders, also thinks he was claiming that Aborigines were agriculturalists. From the ABC Education website:

In 2014, Bruce Pascoe wrote a book called Dark Emu that challenged the belief that the First Australians were hunter-gatherers. In researching his book, Bruce examined the journals of the early explorers and found evidence of a complex civilisation that was using sophisticated technologies to live, farm and manage the land.

And Pascoe himself said in a 2018 talk:

In 2014 I wrote a book, Dark Emu, which exploded the myth that Aboriginal people were mere hunters and gatherers and did nothing with the land. I wrote the book because I found it hard to convince Australians that Aboriginal people were farming. Using colonial journals, the sources Australians hold to be true, I was able to form a radically different view of Australian history. Aboriginal people were farming. There’s no other conclusion to draw.

Well, there’s no other conclusion to draw if you accept unquestioningly Pascoe’s grotesque distortion of his sources. Even if you believe that Pascoe was claiming no more than that Aborigines were, on the whole, hunter-gatherers but significantly (in a statistical sense) also employed agricultural techniques, he fails to prove his case, not by sloppy scholarship but by blatant deception.

If you would like to see the full extent of this deception you will have to read Bitter Harvest. There are still a few copies left.

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