This is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read so far this year.
‘The first British sailors sailed to Australia contemplating what they were about to find, and innate superiority was the prism through which their new world was seen.’
In this book, Bruce Pascoe argues that the common perception of Indigenous Australians leading a ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle before European settlement ignores strong evidence of sophisticated farming and agriculture practices. While there was a lot of movement by Indigenous Australians, there was also more sedentary living, involving the construction of buildings. He mentions explorers who saw building large enough to contain 30 to 40 people. Mr Pascoe has drawn on work by Bill Gammage, Rupert Gerritsen and others as well as his own research to support his argument.
‘It is exciting to revisit the words of the first Europeans to ‘witness’ the pre-colonial Aboriginal economy. In Dark Emu my aim is to give rise to the possibility of an alternative view of pre-colonial Aboriginal society. In reviewing the industry and ingenuity applied to food production over millennia, we have a chance to catch a glimpse of Australia as Aboriginals saw it.’
I found this book absolutely fascinating, and reading it has made me keen to look at some of the work Mr Pascoe has drawn on. The common perception that Mr Pascoe refers to is exactly what I was taught at school fifty or so years ago. There was no discussion of any alternatives.
‘To understand how the Europeans’ assumptions selectively filtered the information brought to them by the early explorers is to see how we came to have the history of the country we accept today. It is clear from their journals that few were here to marvel at a new civilisation; they were here to replace it.’
One of the saddest anecdotes in this book is when Mr Pascoe recounts when a Land Council was duped into allowing non-Indigenous people into entering a culturally restricted zone. He writes:
‘But when next the Aboriginal Elders brought their young men to the initiation site they found it full of bullet-riddled beer cans.
The most disturbing thing about the event was that it undermined the authority of the Elders. They were trying to impress on their young men the importance of maintaining culture and a responsible, alcohol-fee way of life. The young men would have seen immediately that Australia had no regard for the authority of the Elders.’
That last sentence is a sad indictment and, as much as I’d like to believe differently, I doubt that this is an isolated incident.
In fewer than two hundred pages, Mr Pascoe presents a far broader picture of Indigenous Australian land use. A picture which is largely drawn from early explorers’ accounts as they moved across Australia. If, like me, you were taught that Indigenous Australians were only hunter gatherers, you may wish to read this book and consider the possibilities. As Mr Pascoe writes, much of what Indigenous Australians learnt over thousands of years has value to us today.
‘It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry we refuse to say thanks.’