Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling Aboriginal history book ‘debunked’

An influential Australian bestseller that painted a radically different view of Aboriginal history prior to colonisation has been “debunked” in a “damning” new book by two respected academics.

Dark Emu, author Bruce Pascoe’s smash hit 2014 book that argued Indigenous Australians were not just hunter-gatherers but engaged in agriculture, irrigation and construction, won numerous literary prizes, was adapted into a stage performance by Aboriginal dance company Bangarra and has even made its way into school curriculums.

Pascoe’s claims – including that Aboriginal people built homes, villages, parks, dams and wells, selected seeds for harvesting, sewed clothes, ploughed fields, irrigated crops and preserved food in vessels – have long come under fire from right-wing critics, including the magazine Quadrant and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.

Other experts have also raised doubts, including Australian National University anthropologist Ian Keen, who described the evidence for farming as “deeply problematic”, and renowned historian Geoffrey Blainey, who said there was “no evidence that there was ever a permanent town in pre-1788 Australia with 1000 inhabitants who gained most of their food by farming”, as claimed in Dark Emu.

Now two leading experts – anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – have taken aim at Pascoe in a new book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, set to be released by Melbourne University Press next week.

Author and journalist Stuart Rintoul, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine on Saturday, described their rebuttal to Dark Emu as “damning”.

“In page after page, Sutton and Walshe accuse Pascoe of a ‘lack of true scholarship’, ignoring Aboriginal voices, dragging respect for traditional Aboriginal culture back into the Eurocentric world of the colonial era, and ‘trimming’ colonial observations to fit his argument,” Rintoul writes.

“They write that while Dark Emu ‘purports to be factual’ it is ‘littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, distorts and exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions, and ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions’.”

The highly respected academics, who have both spent their careers studying Aboriginal history, write that Dark Emu is “actually not, properly considered, a work of scholarship” and that “its success as a narrative has been achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact”.

“Pascoe’s approach appears to resemble the old Eurocentric view held by the British conquerors of Aboriginal society,” Dr Sutton writes in the book, according to extracts published by Good Weekend.

“Those were the people who organised mass theft of Aboriginal country and many of whom justified the killing of Aborigines who resisted them, really out of greed and indifference, but often under an ideological flag of social evolutionism. They assumed they had a right to profit from the ‘survival of the fittest’ and were the ‘superior race’. The ‘less advanced’ had to make way for the ‘more advanced’. Pascoe risks taking us back to that fatal shore by resurrecting the interpretation of differing levels of complexity and differing extents of intervention in the environment as degrees of advancement and evolution and cleverness and sophistication.”

He told Good Weekend that the pair began working on a response to Dark Emu in 2019 in order to “set things back to a balanced truthfulness” and “restore the dignity of complex (never ‘mere’) hunter-gathering, and thus First Nations cultural history, that has been eroded due to Dark Emu”.

Dr Walshe, meanwhile, said that when she first tried to read Dark Emu, she was so frustrated by its lack of scholarship that she didn’t finish it.

“I still struggle to believe that this has happened,” she told Good Weekend.

In a written response, Pascoe told the magazine that his book had “encouraged many Australians to recognise the ingenuity and sophistication of the many Aboriginal cultures, societies and land-management practices, which had not previously been brought to mainstream attention”.

“The extent of Aboriginal social and economic organisation has been surprising to many Australians and a nuanced debate needs to be ongoing,” he said, adding it would be “disappointing” if Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal history “digressed to a limiting debate about semantics and nomenclature”.

“Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius),” he said.

“Language can be used to help people to see the world differently, to open minds to new ways of seeing. This is what I tried to achieve with Dark Emu.”

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