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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident by Bruce Pascoe, 175 pp, Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia, 2014, ISBN 9781922142436 (pbk), $35.00.

In an article published in 1969 archaeologist Rhys Jones used the term ‘fire-stick farming’ to describe the ways in which Aboriginal people used fire to manage their environment. Bill Gammage’s 2011 prize-winning book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia presents a detailed analysis of the complex and sophisticated ways in which Aboriginal people have managed and maintained Australia’s diverse landscapes since before European arrival. In these works, and in what is by now an extensive literature on this subject, it is well recognised that Australia’s Indigenous people, throughout the thousands of years of their adaptation and survival in this land, have not only made wise use of fire, but have managed the whole range of natural resources and ecological systems to sustain successful and sophisticated societies throughout a very diverse range of landscapes and environments. This sustainable management of country, coupled with an intimate knowledge of the seasonal cycles, has enabled them to develop pliable economies.

Bruce Pascoe enters this debate with his new book Dark Emu. He argues that the techniques and strategies Aboriginal peoples employed in their use and management of their environments and resources equate to agriculture and farming. But his argument goes deeper. In calling for a re-evaluation of the economic modes of Australia’s Indigenous people, Pascoe is asserting that Australia as a nation should, historically, have embraced more profoundly the highly successful and sophisticated nature of Indigenous cultures and societies. The book articulates this point more clearly in the last two chapters.

Pascoe begins to set out the premise to his book in the Introduction, in which he argues for a re-evaluation of the Indigenous economy, from being perceived as a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer society, to one that is far more complex. He has amassed a wealth of evidence to support his contention that Indigenous people, before European arrivals, maintained a sophisticated economy which featured aspects of farming practices and settled lifestyles including permanent settlements with established dwellings.

Pascoe harnesses the historical records of colonial observers of such activities by Indigenous people as seed selection, soil preparation, crop harvesting, eel and fish harvesting, storage of surplus crops, and the establishment of large, settled populations in semi-permanent dwellings. He pursues his argument with discussion on a wide range of ways that Indigenous people modified the environment and its resources including aquaculture, and through the important role of fire. In later chapters, Pascoe’s ambitious project also encompasses discussion of Indigenous cosmology, language and law in support of his thesis that Indigenous people maintained settled, stable and sophisticated farming and agricultural societies.

The notion that Aboriginal people practiced a sophisticated economy which included various ways of modifying the environment is not new, and is the subject of recent scholarship. Gammage for example, discussing ‘farms without fences’ (Chapter 10), writes ‘some researchers see nascent farming in these various practices from tilling to trading’ (p. 296). Gammage puts it well when he states of pre-European Aboriginal society that ‘people farmed in 1788, but were not farmers’, since, he explains ‘these are not the same: one is an activity, the other a lifestyle’ (p. 281). In Gammage’s analysis, the economic mode of Aboriginal people, with its sophisticated combination of hunter-gatherer and more resource intensive practices, embraces particular ways of thinking about, and relating to, the environment, as well as the daily activities of resource use and exploitation. In this scheme, the key to success for sustainable Aboriginal economic livelihoods lies in maintaining a balance between mobility, and more settled modes.

The debate is taken up too by historian John Hirst in his recent book Australian History in 7 Questions. Hirst poses as his first question ‘Why did Aborigines not become farmers?’ His discussion on this raises many questions, such as whether Aboriginal people made an intentional choice to reject agriculture. Again, I think it is not a question as to why Aboriginal people did not take up farming; rather, the point is to look at what it is about the particularities of Aboriginal peoples’ economic systems that enabled them to maintain these successfully for such a long time and in such diverse ecosystems and climates. The sophistication of hunter-gatherer economies was well articulated in 1972 in Marshall Sahlins’ seminal Stone Age Economics, which posited that hunter gatherer economies were the ‘original affluent society’. It is not necessary to ‘re-think’ or to ‘re-classify’ Australian Indigenous people as farmers and horticulturalists in order to be able to embrace the sophistication of their economies. Nor should it be necessary to re-classify Australia’s Indigenous people as farmers in order to contest the racialised and prejudicial attitudes still inherent in many layers of society towards Indigenous people. Whether ‘hunter-gatherer’, ‘horticulturalist’, or ‘farmer’, the label is not the issue: the point is to emphasise the qualities of Aboriginal peoples’ economies and lifestyles as they are, as complex, adaptive, flexible and innovative. Certainly, as Dark Emu shows, there is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates the extraordinary innovative capacities of their societies, including in their material technology (see for example my own work in Writing Heritage on this latter point).

Dark Emu is not Pascoe’s first foray into this subject. In his earlier book Convincing Ground (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007) he refers to pre-European ‘Indigenous agricultural practices’ (p. 82), the presence of organised fish traps and stone dwellings (pp. 125–126), and horticultural practices such as grain harvesting and storage (p. 173). But Dark Emu asks the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether Indigenous peoples were hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists. The point – which Pascoe’s book does make – is rather to re-evaluate the specific nature of Indigenous economies, and to call for a societal re-evaluation that acknowledges the sophistication, complexity and malleability of these economies. Pascoe articulates this more directly in the later chapters of Dark Emu. He writes (at p. 129) that ‘arguing over whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gatherer system or one of burgeoning agriculture is not the central issue’. He is correct here in suggesting that ‘the crucial point is that we have never discussed it as a nation’. This is where he reminds us of his central contention, in suggesting that ‘the belief that Aboriginal people were “mere” hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession’.

Thinking in that way, as with Hirst’s question ‘why weren’t Aboriginal people farmers’, implies an outmoded hierarchical view of advancement or progress in which civilised, settled agricultural societies represented the highest point. The point is not to ask why Aboriginal people did not ‘advance’ to farming and agricultural societies. Rather, it is more productive to seek a better understanding of the particular range of modalities of Aboriginal peoples’ livelihoods, which embraced a wide range of techniques and technologies for harnessing the available resources and environments. As Pascoe correctly discusses in his concluding chapters, sustaining a complex and pliable resource economy required more than tangible assets and techniques; it also necessitated the right balance between the sacred and the corporeal – religion, kinship, language and societal norms and values were all part of the complex amalgam that enabled Indigenous people to pursue their adaptable and innovative livelihoods. The important role of Indigenous peoples’ unique relationships to the land was well articulated some time ago by Deborah Bird Rose, who drew attention to a specific Aboriginal ‘land ethic’. This relationship is a significant element in the particular ways that Indigenous peoples successfully maintained a complex, sustainable livelihood in diverse and changing ecosystems.

Overall Dark Emu is an important and well argued book. Pascoe’s impressive use of the historical record to advance his thesis is particularly commendable. But his reliance on secondary sources and compilations, through which he accesses the works of colonial observers is puzzling. So too is his over-reliance on the work of the late Rupert Gerritsen. Why this excessive use of Gerritsen and other recent syntheses, rather than going to the primary sources themselves?

Unfortunately Dark Emu is also marred by some clumsy passages, occasional questionable style, and poor editing. Pascoe’s frequent use of ‘Aboriginals’ is notably problematic, where today Indigenous people prefer designations such as Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islander people, and, where possible, the specific language or cultural group’s name. Despite these problems, this is an important book that advances a powerful argument for re-evaluating the sophistication of Aboriginal peoples’ economic and socio-political livelihoods, and calls for Australia to embrace the complexity, sophistication and innovative skills of Indigenous people into its concept of itself as a nation.


Davis, Michael 2007, Writing Heritage: The Depiction of Indigenous Heritage in European-Australian Writings, Australian Scholarly Publishing and the National Museum of Australia Press, Melbourne and Canberra.

Gammage, Bill 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales.

Hirst, John 2014, Australia History in 7 Questions, Black Inc, Collingwood, Victoria.

Jones, R 1969, ‘Firestick farming’, Australian Natural History 16: 224–228.

Pascoe, B 2007, Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love with your Country, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

Rose, Deborah Bird 1988, ‘Exploring an Aboriginal land ethic’, Meanjin 3: 378–386.

Sahlins, Marshall 1972, Stone Age Economics, Aldine-Atherton Inc, Chicago and New York.

Michael Davis

University of Sydney

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