TONY BROE & ELLEN FINLAY. Aboriginal History, Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe and the Culture Wars

Feb 26, 2020

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu (2018) has given a recent jolt to the declining History Wars and has invigorated some conservative commentators and writers to disagree with his conclusions (Marks 2020; Morton 2019).

Having worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for decades I am inclined to agree with Pascoe’s conclusion and argue it is time to embrace the Uluru Declaration – a Voice, a treaty and ‘Makarrata’.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu (2018) has given a recent jolt to the declining History Wars at a time when the majority of more informed Australians are recognising Aboriginal people as having land rights and deserving respect as the Original Owners of the land. Pascoe has unfortunately invigorated some conservative commentators and writers to disagree with his conclusions (Marks 2020; Morton 2019); however, in terms of popular acceptance he seems to be on the winning side of the War in making a convincing case for the strength of pre-1788 Aboriginal culture, land use and social organisation beyond the minimalist and poorly defined concept of a “Hunter Gatherer” society.

Having worked with rural, remote and particularly regional and urban Aboriginal communities in Health and Ageing over many decades, from a background in social anthropology and research in neuroscience and community health (Booroongen Djugun Aboriginal Corporation 1992; Koori Growing Old Well Study 2008-2020; see Radford et al 2014), 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).

These rules, and pre-1788 social structures that Pascoe outlines, were probably around 6 to 10,000 years old rather than the 50 to 60,000 years the ancestor culture and rock art had existed – a major 10,000-year ice age intervened from 20,000 to 10,000 BC. However, Pascoe may well be correct that food production methods, physical structures and social organisation were much older. Most anthropologists, including the eminent Harry Lourandis, base the pre-1788 social structure and land use patterns at less than 6000 years old (see for example Tibby, Kershaw & Builth as well as Rowe in David, Barker & McNiven 2006). Whatever its absolute duration it was a well organised, sophisticated, peaceful and successful mode of existence which owned, and was deeply attached to, the land at a local level; Lourandis has shown that the Aboriginal owners used the land communally to feed and maintain large numbers of people (over many thousands of years) at similar population levels to known Agricultural societies, e.g., the highlands of Papua New Guinea (Lourandis 1988).

It is inaccurate and simplistic to dismiss Australian Aboriginal cultures as a simple, primitive or unsuccessful “hunter gatherer society” foraging Australia without connection to the land (Elkin 1938, 1977; Gammage 2011, Mabo and others v. Queensland 1992). British settlers and society invaded Australia and illegally took the Aboriginal land from 1788 (Mabo and others v. Queensland 1992). The settlers then denied the Aboriginal owners their civil and human rights (Chesterman 2005), essentially to justify taking their land: first the settlers defined the original land owners as fundamentally non-human or at least as non-citizens until the 1960s; for over 200 years the settlers then used whatever means were deemed necessary to take and keep Aboriginal land for their own use – denial, neglect, trauma, abuse, massacres and frontier wars (Brodie 2017; Reynolds 2005) – without offer of treaty or compensation.

The resulting trans-generational trauma across Aboriginal lifespans, from infancy to old age, continues virtually unabated today with ongoing child removal from parents through fostering and high rates of child and adult entry into the criminal justice system (Anderson & Tilton 2017). This continues despite the High Court decisions on Indigenous rights and land ownership (Bennett & Broe 2009; Grant 2020; Mabo and others v. Queensland 1992; Love v. Commonwealth 2020). Lack of respect for Indigenous Australians and lack of recognition of their prior ownership of the Land has been largely responsible for current Aboriginal disadvantage and for failure of current attempts at remediating the lifespan and societal gap. Past, and often present, white Australian attitudes are best defined as racism – pure and simple, conscious or unconscious. Aboriginal Australians now need equality and self-determination for the future and our respect for their extraordinary achievements as a culture over 60,000 years. This requires formal recognition by a majority of Australians of the concepts embraced in the Uluru Declaration – a Voice, a treaty and ‘Makarrata’ – to change the trajectory of Aboriginal lives.


Professor Tony Broe is currently Senior Principal Research Scientist at Neura and Conjoint Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of NSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine. He has written some 200 papers and 20 book chapters on healthy ageing, brain ageing, TBI, neurodegenerative diseases, aged care services and health and ageing in Aboriginal Australians. 

Ellen Finlay is working with Professor Broe in a research assistant capacity. Ellen holds a Bachelor of Arts (Politics and Sociology) (Hons in International Relations) from the University of Notre Dame Australia; has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Sydney, and is undertaking her PhD at UNSW at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine. 


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