Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Dark Emu (2018) has been well reviewed over the past two or three years, and as Lisa/ANZLL sent me my copy more or less at the beginning of that period I have been remiss in not reviewing it earlier. Pascoe, a man of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, of course uses this book to argue that the Indigenous people of Australia were much more than ‘just’ hunter-gatherers, but were in fact custodians of the land who built houses, sowed grain and had a pan-continental system of governance that allowed the various language groups to live largely in harmony.

The advantage of my review being late is that I will be able to incorporate some recent papers which argue that Pascoe has overstated his case. At the base of these arguments is a new book by “eminent Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and respected field archaeologist Keryn Walshe”, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021). No, I’m not going to read it, but the book has led to spirited reviews in The Conversation and in the daily newspapers. Pascoe has responded that he welcomes this debate.

ANU senior lecturer Christine Nicholls in her review in The Conversation of 15 June 2021 says that Sutton & Walsh demonstrate that Pascoe was selective in the way he used sources – the journals of early explorers – to imply that “all along Aboriginal people were farmers and/or aquaculturalists”, and that he deliberately failed to interview the few remaining people who have led or are leading, traditional lives [see for instance Two Sisters]. Though the two books are sometimes in agreement –

[Sutton & Walsh] portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state. In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.


Right at the beginning of Dark Emu, Pascoe makes clear that his concern is the system 18th and 19th century anthropologists used to rank societies – with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, then primitive agriculturalists, then traders and so on. By ranking them at the very lowest rung, the British were able to argue that Indigenous Australians had made no attempt to take possession of the land and therefore it was technically unoccupied, terra nullius. The concept of living in harmony with the land, which is the basis of Sutton & Walsh’s argument, was ignored, or to be kind, not understood. Pascoe, understandably perhaps, attempts to make his argument on his opponents’ terms, attempts to show that his people were above that lowest rung.

Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius)

Pascoe, The Age, 12 June 2021

Michael Westaway, an archeologist, also in The Conversation (18 June 2021), is open to Pascoe’s views and is testing them at the site of known village and Indigenous stone quarry in the Channel Country in central Australia

We have been working in a landscape that provides an important test of the Dark Emu hypothesis. In partnership with the Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, who occupy the Channel Country in Central Australia, we have begun investigating Aboriginal settlement sites, pit dwelling huts (known as gunyahs) and quarries.

Our landscape study, published in the journal Antiquity, has found over 140 quarry sites, where rock was excavated to produce seed grinding stones. We have also developed a method to locate traces of long-lost village sites.

Were First Australians farmers or hunter-gatherers? Contemporary archaeological research suggests it’s not such a simple dichotomy. Understanding the Mithaka food production system may well tell us whether such terms are a good fit for defining socio-economic networks in Aboriginal Australia.


Stuart Rintoul in The Age, in a “review” which illustrates perfectly why I can’t be bothered with mainstream media’s focus on personalities over books and ideas, discusses the background to the Sutton & Walsh book, and also the racist response of the right to Dark Emu.

And that is as far as I got before I left Perth last week to come to Melbourne. Now, the following Thursday night I’m sitting have tea waiting till it’s time to leave (due to boring logbook stuff) to go back home. If I don’t post this tonight then my next opportunity will be next Wednesday. I’m a big fan of Lisa’s Indig. Lit. Week and I’d be sorry not to contribute. I’m already sorry about not commenting, not to Lisa’s daily posts, nor to BIP’s prolific #ReadIndigenous series. I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, I know we all do what we can, but I’m still sorry (sad).

As it happens, my current audiobook is Archie Roach’s memoir Tell Me Why. If you don’t know, Archie Roach is one of the great singer songwriters – I last saw him at Perth’s Quarry Amphitheatre, a wonderful venue and a great night – Indigenous, and of course, one of the Stolen Generation (here’s They took the Children Away). I’ll try and remember enough to review it when I get home.

So, back to Bruce. Dark Emu concludes with

The start of that journey [to equality] is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stirring words. My impression is that Pascoe has put the advocate’s case, his people’s case, and has done it well, though probably with some understandable hype. He has certainly made the impression he wished and has in particular had some influence on how Aboriginal history is now taught. More power to his elbow.


Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala, Broome, first pub. 2014. New edition 2018. 229pp.
Christine Nicholls, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, The Conversation, 15 June 2021 (here)
Michael Westaway, How our archeological research investigates Dark Emu’s idea of Aboriginal ‘Agriculture’ and Villages, The Conversation, 18 June 2021 (here)
Stuart Rintoul, Has Dark Emu been debunked?, The Age, 12 June 2021 (here)
Mark McKenna, Bruce Pascoe has welcomed the Dark Emu debate, The Guardian, 25 June 2021 (here)


20 thoughts on “Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

  1. I really got into Archie Roach’s book. I saw him a couple years ago at the Hobart launch of his book. He wasn’t well, sang a couple of songs before his minders whisked him away. His life experiences have been incredibly varied with extreme highs and lows. It was amazing how he found his biological family.


  2. I’m always surprised by the power white western colonizers give to a flag. They stab it in the ground and say “mine.” No flag, no sign of a life they recognize, it’s up for grabs. I appreciate that you describe why hunter-gatherer are colonizer terms meant to make Indigenous people appear like unorganized, incapable wanderers just barely getting by.


    • That was the excuse the British used in Australia, but it was all just greed – the civilizations they plundered in India in particular, but China too and the Middle East, were all older than their own and probably wealthier.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t mind the debate on this book at all. With that I never actually thought that Pascoe was implying “all along Aboriginal people were farmers and/or aquaculturalists” as if it was their only way of life over “hunter-gatherer” To me Pascoe was saying that they were a blend of what circumstances required them to be. My complaint about Dark Emu was it was a bit too short.

    As to this debate I would never read anything out of News Corpse. The need to outrage an ageing predominantly over 50 male readership who in their dotage think their very existence is under attack by an anthropological book is laughable. (my generation I might add)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I quoted Rupert’s propaganda and lies machine. The hatred he propagates in your and my generation against everyone not white and ignorant is a blot on our current “civilization”.
      I think Pascoe laid it on a bit thick about villages and farming, though there are obviously instances of both. What is important though is that Aboriginal history is already being given more respect.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You have stated very clearly Bill my feelings about this book. I felt Pascoe drew a long bow at times, and I was irritated that he felt he needed to because of the whole non-recognition of hunter-gatherer people. My feeling was that that issue needed to be addressed, and it sounds as Sutton and Walshe may have done that.

        All this said, Pascoe also taught me many things I didn’t know about different Indigenous practices around Australia.


  4. Thanks for this, Bill, and I’m glad you brought in the twist to the tale, as it were.
    As it happens I have the Sutton and Walshe book for review from MUP, but I haven’t started it yet.
    I confess it’s not a debate I want to get involved in, but MUP were very keen and talked me into it!


  5. It’s understandable, as you say, that Pascoe wants to prove that his people were not on the bottom rung of the system used by the colonisers – maybe the new sources you cite will open up the debate further and identify the flaws in the system itself.


    • The important thing is that our High Court has already ruled (Mabo) that Aboriginal society was a society of laws and customs, so that in relation to the land at least, wherever there is no black letter law then the ‘common law’ of Aboriginal usage continues to apply.
      Sutton and Walshe do in fact argue that Aboriginal society was both hunter gatherer and sophisticated, refuting the usual dichotomy.


    • Pascoe seems quite happy for the debate to occur because, I think, he has managed to shift its terms, so that all future participants in the debate must start from the case argued in Dark Emu.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I may or may not read the Sutton/Walsh book, but from the little I’ve gleaned so far, some of the debate is around semantics. Specifically the definition of farmer and farming.

    For me it comes down to perspective.

    For our entire history, the perspective has been white and colonial and mostly masculine. Pascoe’s book was a welcome change.

    All history is ultimately about perspective. Even white anthropologists and archaeologists pull the quotes and reference the sections that suit them best (while ignoring the ones that go against their proposal). And their interpretations are still just interpretations – open to debate and a different interpretation.

    I’ll be curious to hear what Lisa thinks about the new book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The debate has continued since I last wrote, and now Crikey has done a whole series of essays on this topic. The main argument is, as I implied, that Pascoe has bought into the European-centric narrative of Farming being more civilised than Hunter-Gathering. While welcoming the new light being shone on Aboriginal culture, Indigenous bodies are becoming more critical of Dark Emu, of its failure to consider Aboriginal life was bound up in their spiritual connection to land, and sadly, Pascoe’s own Indigenaity is being questioned.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah, see, so it’s a grand thing to procrastinate. Reading later leads to good discussions. *winks*

    Undoubtedly there is a lot of competition for this title: “the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding”…but I don’t mind…it seems like the opportunity to discuss all of the contenders for that role of significance is the crucial bit.

    And I hear you on the sad-but-resigned ideas that one has about contributing and promoting; I did have my posts scheduled in advance for Lisa’s week, because I missed it last year (pandemic related adjustments), but then fell ill and didn’t even get to tweet with the little badge I’d downloaded. I suppose she won’t want to host all year so we can all time things perfectly. Pfft. *smiles* *waves at Lisa*


    • I shouldn’t speak for Lisa, though I will right now because I think she should give her broken hand a rest and let it heal. I’m sure she is glad that we keep ILW in mind for a few more weeks, and anyway, with so many of us reading Indigenous Lit all the year round she also has her Indig Lit page to keep updated (it’s interesting and exciting to consider it may soon get too big).

      I get the impression that the Sutton/Walshe book has allowed Pascoe’s critics on the left room to express their views while also giving the right what they see as more ammunition to knock Dark Emu down altogether, feeding right into the Critical Race Theory wars.

      “the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding” IMO is the Murdoch media and its monetising of racism, followed by the dog-whistling of craven right wing politicians who rely on the socially conservative working class for their majorities.

      Liked by 1 person

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