Dark Ostrich: the attack on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu

Jul 14, 2021

Academics generally do not like outsiders trampling through their patch. Angry people are prone to missing irony. Semantics can be tricky when translating between very different cultures. These three factors seem to explain a fair bit of the vehement critique of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu in the new book Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe.

As an academic who has done a bit of trampling in others’ patches myself, I recognise some common defensive responses. ‘That’s not original, we’ve known that for decades.’ ‘You haven’t cited all my favourite sources.’ ‘You didn’t investigate this or that possibility.’ Yet sometimes an outsider can bring a fresh and stimulating perspective that carries some significant truth, even if it has its flaws, and certainly an outsider can be accorded some basic respect.

Good scientists are passionate, that is normal. The challenge, for scientists, is to restrain their passion enough to be spirited advocates and not to overreach and misrepresent either their own case or that of their adversary.

Sutton and Walshe’s book was always likely to test those limits. Their passion is evident in their own reactions to aspects of Pascoe’s book: ‘stunned’, ‘outraged’, ‘appalled’. Predictably but unjustifiably, ‘conservative’ culture warriors immediately claimed vindication.

feature article in the Nine newspapers’ Good Weekend (12 June) gave Sutton and Walshe’s case prominence under the headline ‘Debunking Dark Emu’. The article is primarily a platform for Sutton and Walshe, described as ‘highly respected academics’, with fairly token mention of Pascoe’s side.

The cover of the issue features an ostrich, which has been acknowledged as a mistake. That nicely epitomises our commercial media’s typical interest in dispute over substance and accuracy, not to mention some city-slickers’ ignorance of our iconic bird.

One hopes to see something better in Guardian Australia and The Monthly, but their commentaries by prominent academics share some of the new book’s deficiencies.

One of Sutton and Walshe’s main concerns is that Pascoe, they say, belittles hunter-gatherers by attaching descriptors like ‘mere’ and ‘simple’ to the term. But Pascoe is paraphrasing the traditional and still-widespread attitude. He is being ironic.

Sutton and Walshe’s emotion seems to have blinded them to Pascoe’s obvious use of irony. Indeed in Good Weekend Pascoe is quoted saying ‘the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people …’

As in many fierce debates, Sutton, Walshe and Pascoe are not really so far apart. They are all arguing that First Australians’ lifestyles were far more complex and sophisticated than the old ‘primitive savage’ tropes.

Much of the dispute stems from representing Dark Emu as things it is not. It is not a scholarly treatise, it is a short book presenting some not-widely-known evidence regarding how First Australians fed themselves. It does not argue all First Australians engaged in European-style agriculture (‘clearing, tilling, ploughing, planting …’), nor that they all built durable dwellings or other large structures.

Much hangs on the semantics of ‘farmer’ and ‘hunter-gatherer’ and it’s a shame Sutton and Walshe chose to put that unhelpful dichotomy in their book title. Historian Mark McKenna in Guardian Australia notes that the coloniser’s language does not do justice to the sophistication and complexity of indigenous ways. Well, yes and no: the English word ‘cultivate’ can accomodate a lot of what was happening.

Pascoe is not alone in talking about ‘agriculture’ and ‘farming’. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth was published three years before Dark Emu in 2011. In his last chapter, ‘Farms without fences’, he says ‘farming’ is an activity whereas ‘farmer’ is a lifestyle. First Australians were clearly farming, but were not full-time farmers.

Oh and Gammage is an academic historian, ‘highly respected’ too. Apparently that, and not claiming indigenous descent, affords him some protection from outrage.

The ‘farmer’ versus ‘farming’ distinction relates to another misrepresentation: ‘permanent dwelling’ does not necessarily imply ‘permanent occupancy’. Many Whitefellas in Australia do a seasonal migration, or did before the pandemic.

Historian James Boyce, in The Monthly (July), develops one of Sutton and Walshe’s themes at  some length: they claim Pascoe advocates the supposedly long-discredited ideas of ‘social evolutionism’ and ‘progress’. If Sutton, Walshe and Boyce stepped out of their academic bubble and visited any parliament, pub or editorial office they might find those ‘long-discredited’ ideas still very much alive. Pascoe was writing more for footy fans and local activists than for academics.

Boyce argues, sensibly, there was rarely a sharp line between farming and hunter-gathering. He cites the illuminating Against the Grain by James C. Scott that even in the Middle East there was a 4000-year period of intermediate lifestyles of various kinds before serious city building got under way. Scott’s book was published only in 2017 and hardly anyone in Australia, outside of academia, will have read it, nor its earlier namesake by Richard Manning, also excellent for different reasons.

Is ‘progress’ a central theme of Dark Emu? Pascoe does refer, for example, to ‘early stages’ of agriculture, but is he just using the common framing to make a point, or is he intent rather on arguing that First Australians would have progressed to cities and civilisation just like us? I don’t see any such intention in the book, rather the opposite; he is portraying them for what they were in terms we might relate to.

There are some strange criticisms. Sutton and Walshe complain that people of Cape York specifically eschewed agriculture, and Boyce notes that Tasmanians practiced few of the activities cited by Pascoe. So what? Nobody is arguing they all did all the same things (though Boyce claims Pascoe did).

Likewise Sutton and Walshe complain that the extensive Budj Bim eel farms in Victoria and the large-scale Brewarrina fish traps were each unique. Again, so what? They were the largest of their kind but fish traps of various kinds were, it seems, quite widely used, on the coast as well as in rivers.

Boyce reports Sutton and Walshe as being critical of Pascoe’s ‘reductionist’ focus on material and technological dimensions, obscuring the complexities of mental and aesthetic culture. But Pascoe’s Chapter 6 is The heavens, language and the law. In it he says ‘The economic foundations of traditional society were inseparable from the philosophic and religious beliefs and to see the spiritual life as simply superstition and myth means that the practical advances in food production become invisible.’ The other side of the same coin.

It’s a shame McKenna and Boyce, whose other works I admire, seem to accept Sutton and Walshe’s claims so uncritically. McKenna refers to the ‘systematic demolition of Dark Emu’ and notes with approval its ‘most fundamental flaw’ being the attempt to portray Aboriginal people as ‘agriculturalists’ (despite also noting the pitfalls of inter-cultural semantics). Boyce concludes that Pascoe has made a ‘flawed attempt’ to engage with First Nations people and their heritage.

The popularity of Dark Emu is variously attributed to its alleged promotion of the ‘progress narrative’ or ideology, to Australians’ alleged desire for absolution (count me out, I want resolution), to good story telling and, grudgingly, to the growing interest of many Australians in the real story of First Australians and Pascoe’s desire (or ‘flawed attempt’) to serve that interest. How about just the latter factor, without the patronising of either Pascoe or his readers?

Bruce Pascoe is an engaging writer. He is not only that, but all the academics here condescendingly dismiss him as being a good story teller but not really up to serious work or ‘true scholarship’. He was not pretending to be an academic, but he has presented evidence, and academic defensiveness seems to be in full play here.

Pascoe’s evidence and claims certainly need to be tested, and some may well be found wanting, but the debate needs to be level-headed and open-minded.

Will anything be left of Pascoe’s thesis, his actual thesis: that First Australians lived far more sophisticated lifestyles, that included the cultivation of food, than the old primitive nomad trope?

Well he does cite quite a few original sources. Either he misrepresents most of his sources or they really did claim to see cultivated fields, soft and deeply ‘prepared’ soils, terraced hillsides, stooked grain, stored grain, women harvesting and replanting yam daisies and so on. Remains of durable dwellings and other small and large constructions are there. Traditions of fine sewing, basketry and other craft are being revived. Dark Emu’s case also fits well with Bill Gammage’s thesis that almost the entire landscape was carefully managed and its productivity cultivated.

We shall see, but the proclaimed demise of Dark Emu seems to be premature.

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