Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Book cover of Dark Emu

Dark Emu: Black seeds agriculture or accident by Bruce Pascoe (Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2014).

While the Australian Historical Association conference was being held this week an important annual national celebration was taking place. This year the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Day of Commemoration Week, commonly known as NAIDOC Week runs from 6th to 13th July. Lisa Hill at the ANZ LitLovers Lit Blog runs the Indigenous Literature Week book reviewing challenge to coincide with NAIDOC Week each year.

It is tricky as I want to participate but each year it coincides with the Australian Historical Association Conference. There is nothing like a bit of determination to find a way though. Each year I choose two books to review, one by a female author and another by a male author. I read the first one in the weeks leading up to NAIDOC Week and post the review right at the beginning of the Week, but the other I struggle to read and review in NAIDOC Week. The review often comes out later… but I’ve managed to fit it in this year!

I had a wonderful day reading Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture of accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Engagingly written, full of interesting material and a modest 176 pages, it was the ideal end-of-conference read.

Pascoe draws on the work of Bill Gammage, R Gerritsen and others as well as his own research to make a strong argument for the reconsideration of our understanding of the way Aboriginal people lived in colonial times. He draws extensively from the journals of explorers to present a remarkable array of evidence about the agricultural and technological sophistication of Australian Aboriginal people before contact.

Pascoe demonstrates that the journals of the explorers are fascinating if you cut through the euro-centric paradigm under which they were recording their observations. Pascoe interrogates the journals and is able to glean some gems.

Aboriginal people constructed buildings, many buildings. These buildings were not just in southern Victoria, they were all over Australia. “Permanent housing was a feature of pre-contact Aboriginal economy”, says Pascoe. He cites many examples of Aboriginal houses from around the country to demonstrate that this was not unusual, but typical of the ways Aboriginal people live. He talks about explorers who saw Aboriginal buildings so big they could fit 30-40 people inside. He discusses houses so waterproof they could keep residents dry in a Top End wet season. One explorer wrote that he saw a ‘humpy’ that was twelve feet high. Aboriginal buildings around Australia were made of materials such as stone, grasses and wood from trees. They were sealed with clay. Pascoe cites the explorers coming across villages of houses with paths and communal areas in areas all over Australia.

This is a very, very different picture to what we have been taught.

Major Thomas Mitchell came across grass “piled in hayricks… extending for miles”. Aboriginal people were farmers who stored grain before white settlers advanced into their land. Pascoe talks about explorers finding stores of 40-50 kilograms of grain and more.

Sometimes the explorers benefited from the industry of Australia’s indigenous peoples. Sturt describes their weary party stumbling upon an Aboriginal village in what is now known as Sturt’s Stony Desert. They and their horses were given water, food and shelter in a brand new home. “Sturt was doing it tough among the savages alright” chortles Pascoe. “New house, roast duck and cake!”

More well-known is the eel-farming, fishing and shellfish harvesting work of Aboriginal people around Australia. It was systematic, using sophisticated technologies of channels, traps, nets and based upon a deep ecological knowledge. We know that Aboriginal people are experts in finding and conserving water supplies, but not so well-known is their construction of irrigation systems for their crops.

Pascoe calls the assumption the “greatest of all limitations to wisdom”.  On every page is yet another example of pre-colonial Aboriginal life that will shake the reader’s previous understanding. He rails against the tag “hunter-gatherer”. The evidence he produces suggests that this label should be discarded. What is the point of such classifications after all? Pascoe observes that tests of the degree of civilisation “simply test how similar a group is to European and Asian civilisations and may not reflect their success in other areas such as social cohesion, resistance to warfare or sustainable use of resources”. He goes on to say:

If the test of sophistication were whether or not all were fed regardless of rank or whether all contributed to the spiritual and cultural health of the civilisation, Aboriginal Australia might have a much higher rank than some of the nations considered the hallmark of human evolution.


So why don’t we know this? Why do we know Aboriginal people before contact as nomadic hunters and gatherers wandering the ‘hostile’ Australian landscape.

The settlers wanted land above all else. Colonialism is about abruptly seizing the land of others, of overpowering them in whichever way that will get the job done. The buildings were destroyed, the settler’s livestock not only trampled the Aboriginal crops, they compacted the soil that had been so carefully tended so the choicest crops could no longer gain a hold.

There was another significant thing that the settlers did. Wherever possible they erased memory of anything that Aboriginal people did that could be regarded as sophisticated. By casting them as hunter-gatherers the settlers gained the moral authority according to the racial ideology of the time, to cast Aboriginal people off their land.

In Aboriginal life the spirit and the corporal world are wedded but in European society the economy operates independently of the spirit and, as modern examples illustrate, almost in defiance of the religious moral code.

Pascoe says this citing the Global Financial Crisis, environmental problems and… you can add whichever examples you wish. Separating religious beliefs from impacting everyday life does not work for Aboriginal people according to Pascoe. Separating our moral beliefs from everyday life is not working too well for us either he observes.

Throughout the book Pascoe highlights questions which would be fruitful areas of further research. This book is rich in possibilities for people who want to explore new ideas and fields of knowledge.

Pascoe concludes by urging us to consider growing the grains and other food that he describes in the book. He recognises that farmers are always trying something new and would be open to this change, but there is one impediment. “Agriculturalists will change but will consumers”, asks Pascoe.

Read the book and be open to eating something different!

Indigenous Literature Week 2014

Make sure you read Janine Rizzetti’s excellent review of this book which was also published today on her blog The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

My other review for this year’s Indigenous Literature Week is The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman.

Tomorrow read about new developments from the State Library of NSW regarding their extensive collection of World War I soldiers’ diaries…

24/2/2016 – This post was updated to replace all references to Australian indigenous people as ‘Aborigines’ with ‘Aboriginal people’ in accordance with ‘Appropriate Terminology, Representations and Protocols of Acknowledgement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples‘ from Flinders University (pdf).


19 thoughts on “Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

  1. Wow. That is fascinating. I wonder if we could find similar pre-colonization evidence in other parts of the world where we’ve been told there were “only hunter-gathers.”


    • I have always wondered how the Aboriginal people of southern Australia dealt with the cold. They are people just like us so surely they needed shelter from rain, wind and snow. I knew about possum cloaks but as we know you can die from exposure even wearing a coat if you don’t have a proper shelter.

      Pascoe specifically mentions this issue with respect to Native Americans in his book. He talks about the Canadian First Nation peoples who developed “existing clam beds by building rock walls further away from the beach” and how the heritage authorities had not inspected them even when these were pointed out to them as being significant. He cites J. Williams, Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast (Trasmontanus) (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2006).

      Make sure you read Janine Rizzetti’s excellent review of this book which she also published today. I agree with many of her remarks. It shows the strength of the book when two reviews have so many different things to say about the same, small book.


  2. This is fantastic, Yvonne. You know, I’ve seen a review of this book elsewhere, but wasn’t tempted. But now I am, and have ordered the book.
    And thank you again for your participation in Indigenous Literature Week. Your support means a lot, and you always choose such interesting books!


    • It’s a great book. I have got a list of family members who I’m going to pass the book onto. First on the list is my dietitian-daughter. Pascoe’s discussion of Aboriginal diets is really interesting. I reckon that the botanist in my mother will be interested to read about the plants that Aborigines farmed. Pascoe gives proper botanical names throughout. Having said that, this is not a niche book, it has something of interest for everybody.


      • Yes, I’m discovering more about plant use too (medicinal as well as for food) by reading The Town Grew Up Dancing by Wenten Rubantja & Jenny Green. His style is more anecdotal than empirical, but it shows how researchers who are bilingual in language who really listen in an open-minded way to indigenous old-timers can learn much that hasn’t been understood before .


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  4. Thank you! Bill Gammage’s ‘Biggest Estate on Earth’ was an epiphany for me, totally changing the way I understood the landscape and the role of indigenous Australians in shaping it. And a terrific read, to boot. ‘Dark Emu’ sounds equally wonderful – I’ll make it my mission to find a copy this week.


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  6. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful review.
    ‘By casting them (Aboriginal Peoples) as hunter-gatherers the settlers gained the moral authority according to the racial ideology of the time…’ is an important statement. I think educators have the power to debunk this myth. There are still so many people (including young children) who have stereotyped images of Aboriginal Peoples who are situated ‘out there in the bush’ and/or ‘in the past’.
    I hope lots of educators read this book! 🙂


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  11. whoever controls the present controls the past. Whoever controls the past controls the future said that fella who wrote ‘1984’ George Orwell


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