But remember you can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history.  —Bruce Pascoe

Turning Australian history on its head

By Roger Childs

DarkEmuAboriginal Australians have lived on the continent for at least 100,000 years and the traditional view is that they were nomadic, primitive people surviving by hunting and gathering based on simple skills and tools. Bruce Pascoe puts the lie to this in Dark Emu – Aboriginal Australians and birth of agriculture – which is a comprehensive and highly interesting analysis of these adaptable, skillful and peaceful people, and how they lived comfortably and in harmony with the many environments on the continent. 

These First Nation peoples were the first farmers on the planet by probably as much as 15,000 years, and the extensive, highly intricate and remarkably efficient Brewarrina fish trap system on the Darling River in New South Wales, which may date back 40,000 years, is undoubtedly the oldest human construction on earth. Obviously, his book and others on the same topic have necessitated some rewriting of the origins and development of mankind.

Resourceful and skillful people

Dark Emu Brewarrina fish trapsThe author has pulled together material from a huge range of sources, including the research efforts of many archaeologists, scientists and academics, and he provides many examples of physical evidence in the landscape. Dark Emu has blown the “hunter-gatherer” label for Aboriginal people out of the water, as it includes copious, irrefutable proof that these inventive, adaptable and tolerant people were not only farmers, but also fishermen, engineers, conservationists and builders. Much of the evidence is from the observations of early explorers, travelers, colonists and farmers, and the book is backed up with extensive footnotes and references.

Most First Nation people were sedentary and they stored vast quantities of food, built comfortable, weather-proof houses from a range of materials, and had small towns of over 1000 people. They lived in peace with widespread co-operation between tribes, protecting the environment and sharing resources. They also ate and cooked a multitude of different foods and made flour from native cereals to make delicious cakes and bread. 

Today Pascoe, who has Aboriginal ancestry, lives on a farm in eastern Victoria and practises sustainable agriculture, gentler farming of a variety of native plants that are far friendlier towards  the environment and soils, as they don’t require yearly ploughing, extra water or insecticides. (Emma Harvey)

A tragic recent history

Dark Emu Aborigines in chainsThe arrival of British settlers in the late 18th century and those that followed them was devastating for the Aboriginal people, their economy and culture. With the arrogance of all imperialist powers and colonists, the British couldn’t believe that the primitive natives could have been farmers, engineers and builders, and proceeded to destroy settlements, fishing systems and farmland. The Aboriginal people were hunted, poisoned and slaughtered, and, at best, driven off their land to live in the harsh interior. Some were used as slave labour and others who resisted were either executed or placed in chains. A proud people whose had lived successfully and comfortably for tens of thousands of years were reduced to dependents in their own land with no civil rights. It wasn’t until the 1960s that they were given the right to vote and were counted in a census. The treatment of the First Nation peoples is a dark stain in Australian history.

A learning experience

Bruce Pascoe is not bitter, but emphasises that Australians today need to learn how to use the long experience of the native peoples in the future use of the land. For example, the Aborigines had used fire carefully to reduce the build-up of litter in forests with burn offs to prevent the sort of tragic out-of-control fires which are a regular feature of the Australian summers.  

In his final chapter: Accepting History and Crating the Future, the author makes a plea for all Australians to acknowledge what the Aboriginal people achieved and give them a role in planning the future. Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people.

This is one of the most important books to come out of Australia and has been widely acclaimed. I cannot recommend it highly enough.