Dark emu : black seeds : agriculture or accident?

by Bruce Pascoe

Paper Book, 2014



Call number




Broome, Western Australia : Magabala Books, 2014.

User reviews

LibraryThing member keylawk
The author writes with gentle compassion as witness to the remaining archeology and as a reader of the early journals, accounts, and diaries of the first European explorers and "settlers" of Australia. The myths of a "primitive" and empty continent are annihilated.

Bruce Pascoe, an Australian of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, quotes from the first person accounts, and then contrasts the representations which followed about the level of aboriginal development. The truth about the advanced Agriculture, Aquaculture, Housing, use of Fire, and the understandings of Language and Law, is re-exposed. Dated stonework and physical evidence demonstrates that Australia is the site of the earliest sailing, seasonal navigation, irrigation, planting, use of battue nets and fishing weirs, so far discovered.

The yam culture supported a relatively large population in which the ugliness of war was almost unknown. Linguistically, it is obvious that weapons and tools are loaded with "moral and spiritual obligation and significance". [193] The idea of conquest as inevitable "progress" is challenged--viewing the European colonials seizure of a continent and reducing it to mono-cultures, war, and overpopulation, in historical context with a careful examination of outcomes. Sustainability requires more than "touchy-feely wise blackfellow versus the destructive imperialist whitefellow" but a value on conservative economic practices and the evolution of the species. [195] The author succeeds in explaining progress using a model of "change generated by the spirit" applied to political action. The interconnected economic system in operation could be considered "jigsaw mutualism", in that individuals had rights and responsibilities for its parts, and were motivated to add to, rather than detract from, each other and the "epic integrity of the land". [199]

This book clears away the myths and reestablishes the facts. Quoting Bill Stanner, "The worst imperialisms are those of preconceptions." [200] The author reports that the contemporary scientists are looking at the Aboriginal food products. Two major crops domesticated by Aboriginal people are native yams and grains. These may be perfect plants for dryland farms where European grains and sheep have been abandoned. After tens of thousands of years of sustainability, the recent introduction of superphosphates, herbicides and drenches required for European grains have leached and salinated vast regions, all just in the last century. It is exciting to read that the early explorers who ate the native food found it to be the best they had ever indulged--Mitchell's light and sweet bread and panicum. [214 ff]. The gist of this work is that the recovery of slaughtered and altered elements in history--the advanced people, and their crops, irrigation, and fisheries--"may hold the keys to future prosperity". [224] One can only share these concrete models which point to the glorious hope : "Human survival on a healthy planet is not a soft liberal pipe dream; it is sound global management, and the deepest of religious impulses". [226] Pascoe has ignited the journey.
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LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
Growing up in Australia in the 1970s and 80s, there were a grand total of three mentions of Aboriginal people in the curriculum; when I was five we got to colour in a picture of an Aboriginal man, a book told us that a European explorer on the Murray got some spears chucked at him and another book told us that all the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of Adelaide, had all died out. Imagine my confusion when I later met Kaurna elders.

This all vaguely ties into "Dark Emu" as European Australians have done such a bang up job erasing the achievements of pre-contact Indigenous Australia that we have no idea of many ways Australia leads the world; the oldest human built structure in the world, the first parliament, the first farmers, the first builders (to name a few examples). Pascoe provides very readable evidence that Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were far more advanced than we have given them credit for. Check it out.
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LibraryThing member leah152
Well, I can't say this is exactly a good read. It's a very important read. In some ways it's really hard to read as you realise how much we took from them. We took everything from them.Personally I think this should be required reading at school.
LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is a fascinating book. Pascoe quotes journals of early European travellers and explorers to show how successful was the aboriginal food production system prior to the disruption and devastation of European settlement.
Pascoe is not an academic and the book is not prefect, but the premise posed is well argued, and the sources available for review. I found his points to be compellingly made.
- he cites reports of food stores (plundered by the explorers who reported them!) that were way beyond what modern Australians have come to expect from the era - grain stores left for later use of 50 - 60 kgs, up to tonnes left in some places.
- population densities far higher than one would expect from the received stories of a hard-scrabble existence prior to European settlement
- complex and durable housing - quite different from the gunyahs and hovels usually reported
- technology for managing water and fish trapping are real eye openers.
The conclusion is that it suited the settlers to have a narrative that downplayed the success and complexity of pre-settlement aboriginal life as part justification as their land was taken for European exploitation.
Perhaps the best vignette of the book is the description of a sophisticated fish capturing set-up involving a sluice in a river through which fish passed and were able to be selectively caught in a loop on a sprung piece of wood and thrown onto the river bank by a fisherman lying on top of the contraption. This was described by the reporter as confirming the indolence of the Aboriginal race! If the same device had been a European invention, one would expect a slightly different response.
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LibraryThing member zeborah
I'd been meaning to read this for a long time and thought I knew the general gist of it, but it's 1000% more so. It outlines an overwhelming number of lavishly referenced examples of fields of grain or yam crops, wells and dams, fish weirs and kangaroo battues, hunting alliances with killer whales and dolphins, mosaic fires relying on predictable changes in wind direction, and more. The sheer extent of agriculture, aquaculture, soil management, storage of excess harvests, permanent settlements, and social systems so stable that they could maintain all the above sustainably over tens of thousands of years - and the extent to which European settler simultaneously admired and denied the results of all this, and simultaneously used and destroyed its fruits - leads inexorably to the conclusion embodied in a word never written in the text: genocide.

But while the author's feelings about the destruction of the culture and of even the memory of it are very clear, he ends on the optimistic note that if [we] settlers can move beyond "saying sorry" to "saying thanks" we could then take the next step to equality - perhaps "insufficient to account for the loss of the land, but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start". By acknowledging and reviving traditional practices of managing the land, Australia could revert from the desert it's unjustly famous for, back to the rich, productive farmland that first met the European colonists.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
This is a great endeavor, the kind of book most Australians should try to read; even if you don't want to take all of the polemic to heart, it's good to know the facts that are presented.

On the other hand, holy mother of God is this a terrible book, in the sense that it is rambling, repetitive, and seemingly was never edited at all by anyone. Some paragraphs feel like they were thrown in at random, just because that paragraph had been written. Other paragraphs display exactly the kind of wanton stupidity that a book like this is meant to combat, except that the stupidity is about something else, and so is, I guess, not worth combating?

"The financial crash of 2008 and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 occurred because the Christian morality of most participants had been excluded from their business dealings. In the case of the oil spill, it highlighted the dominion that Christians believe they hold over the earth."

That's right: the oil spill was caused by the absence of Christian morality among oil barons, as well as the presence of Christian morality among oil barons. Disappointing, because a good version of this would be so good.
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LibraryThing member therebelprince
A rather important, worthwhile read for all Australians. "Dark Emu" is one of several recent books (another being the comprehensive "The Greatest Estate on Earth" - a superior and more objective read, if I'm honest) seeking to shatter the many misconceptions about the way Aboriginal Australians lived before their land was taken over by the white man.

"Arguing over whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gatherer system or one of burgeoning agriculture is not the central issue. The crucial point is that we have never discussed it as a nation. The belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify disposession."

Pascoe outlines the anthropological, geographical, and anecdotal evidence for Aboriginal farming, trapping, house-building, clothing, fire-burning, and other interesting practices. This book is not academic, in that it primarily lists a variety of examples and claims without citing many sources, but, as Pascoe notes, this is an area where there remains great prejudice and ignorance today. The information I was taught as factual when I was a child portrays a fairly simplistic view of the Aboriginal tribes, and it's truly fascinating to gain an insight into the rich culture that existed in the country long before the white man. Pascoe sees the best possible answers, of course, and his ideology can be frustrating when it replaces more even-keeled thought. But perhaps this is better seen as a work of passionate non-fiction rather than academia. Australia has a long way to go before equality is achieved, and recognition of this sort can only help.
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LibraryThing member Jayeless
This book has been depicted as a huge bombshell of a work, upturning everything "we" thought we knew about Aboriginal societies before invasion. With this in mind, I found this book kind of disappointing, because having studied a mere single unit of Aboriginal history at university… this book was not a bombshell in the slightest. "Well duh, Jess," you might say, "this book was supposed to be a bombshell to THE AVERAGE AUSTRALIAN, not to people who are already relatively well-educated on the matter." (Not that a single unit is that much education.) On that, OK OK you might have a point… but then who is this book really for? If you're remotely interested in Australian history, you probably already know the main points of this book… and if you're not interested you'd never read this anyway. Is it for people who are interested but never really got around to starting to learn? I don't know.

At any rate, once I realised the marketing for this book was way overblown, I was able to appreciate it for what it was. Pascoe's main contention is that pre-contact Aboriginal societies were not hunter-gathers, but cultivated the land and waterways in sophisticated ways like agriculturalists, and built permanent villages to live in. In general I think this is pretty well-known, but the book has a ton of specific examples and details that are not all so well-known. For me, that was probably the most illuminating part of the book: learning the different species of grains, yams and suchlike that Aboriginal people used to cultivate, and how could these be cultivated again today as more climate-appropriate alternatives to wheat, rice, barley, etc. (not replacing the Eurasian crops wholesale, just as an alternative, and particularly in more marginal farmland like western NSW that used to grow these native crops perfectly well). Pascoe has something of a side argument about wanting rural Aboriginal people to be able to create collectives to grow these native crops, taking advantage of the popularity of "whole foods" to find an affluent market. This all seems pretty fair and intriguing to me.

He also talks in great detail (the entirety of chapter three) about the design of Aboriginal villages and the architecture of their houses in different parts of the country. Most of these structures have not survived, and while Pascoe doesn't really spell it out in this book, this is because British settlers purposely destroyed those settlements so as to destroy the evidence they weren't simply settling "terra nullius". Basically, international law in the late eighteenth century outlined three circumstances in which you were allowed to annex new land: by agreement (like the Louisiana Purchase), by fair conquest (as affirmed by a peace treaty afterwards), or if it was uninhabited ("terra nullius"). The Brits twisted this latter argument, claiming inhabited land was technically uninhabited if the inhabitants were just wandering over it and not laying roots down (like by cultivating the land or building villages). Once it became apparent to the invaders that Aboriginal people were ABSOLUTELY cultivating the land and living in villages, they decided to burn everything down to hide the evidence. Obviously there still is evidence (including evidence of settlers putting it in writing about all the Aboriginal houses they'd destroyed…), but if you were wondering why there are one-star reviews acting like it's laughable that Aboriginal people ever had houses, that's why.

Another important part of this book, of course, is the discussion of how Aboriginal societies were sustainable in a way that capitalism (built on the false premise of eternal growth) can never be. People cultivated the land collectively, were careful not to make radical changes that could have bad consequences for people elsewhere (like downstream) or in future generations, and even made sure to do things like hunt male animals instead of female ones, to have the most minimal impact on animal species' viability. They practised terraced agriculture, cultivated the sweeping grasslands (full of food crops, actually) that the Europeans thought were there just by the grace of nature, used nets that could be swiftly taken down once full to catch only the amount of fish they truly needed… and of course they conducted planned burns in a vastly more sophisticated way than our modern authorities do. They did not believe in private land ownership the way that capitalism holds sacred; they understood themselves to be custodians of the land, there to ensure it would remain in good condition for the next generation. Considering we live in a world where climate change, deforestation, excessive waste, unsustainable mining, depletion/destruction of lakes and waterways, and so on are all gigantic issues, it's certainly worth reminding ourselves that the world doesn't have to be run this way.

What confused me somewhat, though, is that Pascoe seemed afraid to take this argument right through to its rightful conclusion: that capitalism itself, as imposed on Australia by the British and persisted with ever since, is the problem. He even tries to argue that empowering Aboriginal people to return to these practices would pose "no risk" to the economy… when the thing is that of course forcing major corporations to stop destroying the environment for the sake of short-term profit would "pose a risk to the economy" (in that those corporations would cease to be profitable), but this is A GOOD THING, because these practices are insane! Dumping capitalism and returning to more traditional Aboriginal ways of viewing property and sustainability is absolutely what we need to do, so why chicken out of saying that and try to be like, "Well… maybe some Aboriginal-run farming collectives will fix things?" In and of themselves they will not fix things, man. We need to look bigger.

But look, this is really a pop anthropology book rather than a political argument, so my criticisms of its conclusion shouldn't be taken as a big deal. Overall, if you don't know that much about Aboriginal societies pre-1788 this is a good place to start. If you do know a bit, then you'll probably still get something out of it, but don't expect it to be earth-shattering. By raising expectations excessively I think the marketing did this book a bit of a disservice, but it's still good and easy to read. Worth it if you have the interest.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
Excellent and accessible discussion of the evidence behind a non-nomadic lifestyle for the Aboriginal people prior to British colonisation.

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