Pascoe, Bruce: Dark Emu: Black Seeds, Agriculture or Accident?

Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu: Black Seeds, Agriculture or Accident? Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2014 (and later editions)

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the “hunter-gatherer” tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession … Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required. (blurb)

The book has won Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. (Another report. Another.) There is a blog and teacher’s notes (linked to the Australian Curriculum) as well as three ABC appearances, including a discussion with Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia.

Dark Emu injects a profound authenticity into the conversation about how we Australians understand our continent [according to the judges of the NSW prize]. Pascoe demonstrates with convincing evidence, often from early explorers’ journals, that the Aboriginal peoples lived settled and sophisticated lives here for millennia before Cook.

Aboriginal democracy created “the Great Australian Peace” on a continent which was extensively farmed, skilfully managed and deeply loved. The British colonist Cecil Rhodes outlawed any mention of Shona architectural achievement in Zimbabwe; Pascoe argues convincingly that a similar intellectual “disappearing” of Aboriginal civilisations has taken place here. Dark Emu reveals enormous Aboriginal achievement in governance and agriculture, and restores these to their rightful place at the epicentre of Australian history. Pascoe’s thesis is not simply about what once was but, critically, it also informs a vision of an Australia yet to be.

The ‘disappearing’ of this Peace may be compared with the similar disappearing of the Frontier Wars from received Australian history. Resources on the Frontier Wars and other aspects of Indigenous-settler relations are here.

Note by David Stephens, 9 January 2017: I read this over the Christmas break. In its quietly insistent way it is a profoundly unsettling book, particularly in its depiction of how evidence of Indigenous sophistication was airbrushed out or wished away –  to justify what was being done to Indigenous society and land. It follows up Gammage’s Biggest Estate but leaves more of an impression on the reader than that book did.

Update 28 October 2016: review in Whispering Gums blog, with links to other reviews.

Update 15 June 2018: Tony Hughes-D’Aeth riffs off Dark Emu in a piece for The Conversation.

Update 1 June 2019: Bruce Pascoe writes in Guardian Australia, following the publication of Young Dark Emu, a version of Dark Emu for children.

Update 26 November 2019: Tom Griffiths writes in Inside Story about Dark Emu and Pascoe’s later collection, Salt. Review of Salt by Diane Bell.


Update 27 November 2019: Pascoe’s work has been criticised by other writers, such as Andrew Bolt, Peter O’Brien, and the contributors to a website, Dark Emu exposed. There are some similarities between how this body of work stands in relation to Pascoe as in how Keith Windschuttle’s work stands in relation to scholarship on massacres of Indigenous Australians. Windschuttle himself has written about Pascoe. Readers are urged to become familiar with this alternative interpretation and apply to it at least the same evidentiary standards as it applies to Pascoe’s work.

David Stephens

17 May 2016 updated


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