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. Update 5 December 2019: Rick Morton had a go at this in The Saturday Paper (paywall).

Update 11 January 2020: Questions about Pascoe’s Indigenous status.

Update 19 January 2020: Jewel Topsfield in The Age on the questions over Pascoe’s Indigenous status.

Update 6 February 2020: Russell Marks in The Monthly on the fuss over Pascoe’s Indigenous status. A full and balanced view of the controversy, also analysing Pascoe’s use of sources.

This is how Australian intellectual life works now. On one side sit those who see the need to synthesise Indigenous and settler experiences, hitherto about as divergent in our histories as one can imagine. On the other, those who strive to resist this synthesis and retain pride in the colonial story. This cleavage has dramatically reorganised the national culture.

Update 26 February 2020: Tony Broe and Ellen Finlay in Pearls and Irritations.

We agree with Bruce Pascoe’s main conclusions. This opinion is based on existing evidence and experience long before his book was published. Aboriginal Australia was, by and large, a well regulated, community controlled, peaceful society with common rules across disparate nation groups which formed a de facto ‘United Nations’ in many cultural and social terms. You didn’t get “speared” unless you broke the rules – kinship, land use and ownership, cultural respect, social relationship rules – common rules across the whole Australian ‘continent as a geographic and political entity (Elkin 1938, 1977; Gammage 2011; David, Barker & McNiven 2006).

Update 25 June 2020: Judith White in Pearls and Irritations:

The Black Lives Matter protests have unleashed a debate about what should happen to colonial statues: whether they should be protected, given explanatory panels, put in museums, or removed altogether.

Here’s a thought: why not consult First Nations peoples about them? Make it part of the Makarrata, the great process of truth-telling and healing requested by the 2017 Statement from the Heart that then PM Malcolm Turnbull so cruelly rejected.

Confronting our history is crucial to reconciliation. It’s the way to free ourselves, finally, from the empire of the mind.

Update 15 June 2021 and after: Christine Judith Nicholls reviews a critique of Pascoe. Tim Rowse has another review of the same book by Sutton and Prowse.

The Conversation has the Nicholls article, the Rowse article is in Inside Story, and the book is Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, by Sutton and Walsh.

Another article in The Conversation from Westaway and Gorringe.

Bill Gammage in Inside Story.

30 October 2021: Review by Judith White of a new book by Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming. White says the book shows ‘the lessons of First Nations land management and fire control are essential to sustainability’.

9 February 2023: Van Loon, Coate and Weber in The Conversation look at the success of Dark Emu and the value spin-offs of successful publishing.

David Stephens

17 May 2016 updated


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