Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book ‘Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?’ was republished in 2018 as ‘Dark Emu’ with some extra material.
Australians are systematically miseducated about Aboriginal history. Pascoe sets out to give people a better idea of what Aboriginal society was like before the First Fleet. Many Australian readers will be learning of these things for the first time – the use of crops, the architecture of Aboriginal villages, the ways in which people managed their land.
One of Pascoe’s goals in writing this book was to spark interest in the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia before 1788. In this he succeeds completely.
His writing is intellectually honest, and he constantly directs you to further reading. Over and over Pascoe urges you to track down his sources and see them for yourself. He brings your attention to overlooked books and to Indigenous-run tours of important locations.
The flaw in the book flows from Pascoe’s misuse of the words ‘hunter-gatherer’ and of the meaning of agriculture. Pascoe argues that Aboriginal groups were not hunter-gatherers, but rather an out-and-out agricultural society.
European settlers in Australia systematically downplayed the complexity of the Indigenous economy. Their motive was totally political – to claim that Aboriginal people did not fully ‘use’ the land and to paint them as inferior, to justify European invasion. The same politics exist today, and Pascoe comments on “the tenacity of the Australian delusion.” This delusion needs to be exposed as capitalist propaganda, and Pascoe does a good job here.
But Pascoe’s strategy is not just to highlight the truth – that Aboriginal people made intensive use of the land and managed their resources on a permanent basis – but to claim that this made them different from ‘hunter-gatherers.’
One unintended effect of this is to throw hunter-gatherer people under the bus. Whether the British Empire invaded a hunter-gatherer society or an agricultural one, it’s still the same crime. In Brazil Indigenous hunter-gatherers right now face the same slanders and attacks, intensifying under the far-right president Bolsonaro. It’s a lie to suggest that they don’t truly use their land.
Unfortunately Pascoe repeats the propaganda on this – wrongly saying that hunter-gatherers “do not employ agricultural methods or build permanent dwellings”, that they are mere “wanderers”. But wherever you find people, you find them making sophisticated use of their surroundings.
Many researchers argue that hunter-gatherers often had little reason to move toward a full-blown reliance on agriculture and permanent cities. There is evidence that the transition meant an initial drop in living standards for the people who took this path.
For those people, life began to mean spending all your time tending a smaller area of land, and not moving from your home. This is a radically different lifestyle to that in Australia before 1788, with many disadvantages faced before people elsewhere locked themselves into doing it.
Pascoe emphasises that Aboriginal people built permanent structures and had their communities centred on one place. But his own evidence shows that even these societies saw populations travelling regularly.
Over and over he quotes the journals of early European colonists describing Aboriginal villages with well-constructed homes. Explorers routinely trespassed in Aboriginal homes, using them as their own shelters while travelling. And, over and over, they describe these places as empty, because the inhabitants were not tied only to that spot.
Pascoe shows how pseudo-scientific ideology is a tool to justify atrocities against Indigenous people. He shows how this was driven by aspiring landowners seeking to appropriate the land for profit, but all his suggestions for action stay firmly within the worldview of the profit system.
At times he hopes that profit-hungry corporations will remember Aboriginal people after learning to exploit Indigenous crops such as yams and kangaroo grass, but he has already shown how this is not how the system has ever worked.
He points in the direction of Aboriginal capitalism, but this can only ever deliver prosperity for a small minority allowed into the capitalist class. Look, for example, at Indigenous businessman Mick Mundine’s attacks on the residents of The Block in Redfern.
This book will make readers want to know more, but it does tacitly endorse some of the prejudices and values of the ruling class.
The capitalist system has driven incredible violence against Aboriginal people since 1788. The ruling class continues to use racism in the interest of profit: to justify attacks on remote communities, on wages and welfare, and to drive a wedge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers. We need a socialist alternative – not more capitalism.
Reviewed by David Elliott
By Bruce Pascoe, new edition 2018
Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, pp.278