Bruce Pascoe, Dumped Upon from a Great Height

Peter O’Brien

In a very well researched paper titled ‘Foragers or Farmers: Dark Emu and the Controversy over Aboriginal Agriculture’ published in  Anthropological Forum, ANU academic Dr Ian Keen, has brought some academic rigour to the debate over Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.

When I wrote Bitter Harvest, I did not do so as a purported historian or anthropologist.  I did it as an auditor.  My primary purpose was not to demolish the theory that Aborigines were sedentary agriculturalists but to show that Pascoe, recently appointed Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture at Melbourne University, had failed dismally to establish that theory in any meaningful way.  Not only that, but that he had advanced his case by means of egregious, comprehensive and deliberate deception. Keen says:

Many critiques of Dark Emu have come from the political right. They include the writings and broadcasts of Andrew Bolt; articles in, and a book published by Quadrant magazine, whose editor Keith Windschuttle engaged extensively in the ‘history wars’; and the Dark Emu Exposed (Anon. 2020) as well as the Quadrant online ( websites (sic). Unfortunately, in my judgement these critiques of Pascoe’s treatment of his historical sources are largely correct. The forthcoming book by the anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton and the archaeologist Keryn Walshe, brings a high standard of scholarship in scrutinising Pascoe’s claims, and adopts a non-political stance.

Defences of Dark Emu have come from the political left. Rick Morton of The Saturday Paper, for example, writes: ‘after reading the explorer journals on which the book is based’ he was ‘unable to find any errors’ in Dark Emu . This is quite surprising, as we shall see. Professor Marcia Langton is reported to have said that Dark Emu ‘is the most important book on Australia and should be read by every Australian’. Again, coming as it does from an eminent scholar, this is an unexpected judgement.  (My emphasis)

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‘Unfortunately, in my judgement these critiques of Pascoe’s treatment of his historical sources are largely correct’.   I’m not sure if Keen’s disappointment is due to the fact that it is the ‘political right’ that has exposed Pascoe (as the context might suggest) or that a work so enthusiastically received by a well-meaning public should turn out to have feet of clay.  I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and go with the latter.

Critics of Dark Emu have come from the political right, and its defenders from the left, because Dark Emu is essentially a political tract, not ‘a history’ as its author claims.  At least half of its content is a catalogue of Aboriginal grievance.  And I believe that is the reason why Professor Marcia Langton has pointed failed to notice its shortcomings.

As I have gone to great lengths to explain, both in Bitter Harvest and on this website, the aim of Dark Emu, in promoting the idea of a sedentary agricultural society in pre-colonial Australia is to undermine the legal basis for settlement and call into question the sovereignty of the nation of Australia over this continent.  I suspect Keen is perfectly aware of this as, earlier in the paper, he writes:

The ostensible motivation for promulgating arguments that at least some Aboriginal peoples were farming at the time of British colonisation has been to counter the idea that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive hunter-gatherers’. (My emphasis)

His use of the word ‘ostensible’ suggests he is aware that there is another and hidden motive.  However, be that as it may, his examination of the theory itself is compelling. Keen defines agriculture as:

Agriculture has been defined in terms of cultivation and domestication. Cultivation involves preparation of the soil through a variety of means including swidden, tillage, and irrigation, as well as propagation through the sowing of seeds and vegetative reproduction … The domestication of plants results from cultivation over an extended period.

One of the themes that Pascoe develops is that repeated harvesting of, for example tubers, caused them to domesticate to some extent.  He takes that as evidence that Aborigines were cultivators.  One of the sources he relies upon is ethnobotanist Beth Gott.  Here is Keen’s take on this:

The ethnobotanist Beth Gott argued that systematic and repeated digging up of edible roots by Aboriginal people aerated the soil and loosened it, so facilitating germination and root penetration, and incorporating ash and composted vegetable matter into the soil. ‘[T]his regime of firing, gathering and digging might well be regarded as a form of “natural cultivation” on the part of the southern Australian Aborigines’. Perhaps this is so, but the process did not include all the procedures required to constitute horticulture, in particular the deliberate selection of plant varieties for planting, and the reservation of seed for propagation.

This whole question of human intervention in plant development as it pertains to the idea of agriculture is bedevilled by semantic considerations, but Keen handles it in an even-handed and objective way.  For example, sowing of seed is a necessary aspect of agriculture and Pascoe provides a (very) few examples of this activity in Dark Emu.  I address them all in Bitter Harvest.  Pascoe also makes much of the fact that Aborigines stored grains, citing it as evidence of agricultural practice. Keen summarises his detailed response to the idea of cultivation in this passage:

Key features of grain cultivation are not reported in the sources appealed to by Gerritsen, or indeed by Pascoe. Grain does not appear to have been stored for future use as seed. Indeed, Norman Tindale reports that storage of grains ‘was always for use and never for returning to the soil’, that is, it is was not stored as seed for cultivation. The ground was not tilled, and where there are reports of the deliberate sowing of seed it was on a very small scale, and perhaps mainly for ritual purposes such as species maintenance. Thus, Aboriginal people appear not to have cultivated seed-bearing plants but rather harvested and stored wild grains.

And later in the paper:

According to Pascoe, R.G. Kimber ‘compiled an enormous body of evidence from people who observed Central Australian Aboriginals engaged in seed propagation, irrigation, harvest, storage, and the trade of seed across the region’. This seems overblown. Fiona Walsh (1990, 34) reports the dispersal of seeds of Solanum diversiflorum (‘bush tomatoes’), broadcasting the seed over burnt ground near the camp , while Latz reports the planting of Nicotiana species. Kimber (1984, 16–17) recorded Walter Smith’s reminiscence of broadcasting the seed of grasses (possibly Panicum decompositum) and ngardu (Marsilea drumondii). The planting of Ipomea species was recorded by Yen (1989, 60). Gerritsen (2008, 23) argues that at least seven species were probably propagated deliberately and independently of outsider influence. Pascoe quotes Kimber’s informant Walter Smith:

They chuck a bit there [at a favourable locality]. Not much you know, wouldn’t be a handful. [They] chuck a little bit, spread it [broadcasting fashion] you see – one seed there, one seed there…[of] course they chuck a little bit dirt on, not too much though. And soon as first rain comes…it will grow then.

As noted, Sutton and Walshe argue that these practices of seed dispersal had a religious rather than horticultural significance, as an aspect of so-called ‘increase rites’. If such reports are correct, this suggest that Indigenous practices contributed to the maintenance and distribution of seed-bearing food plants in Australia. However, they did not take place in a context of gardens or field systems, seed selection and preservation, tillage, planting, and tending. It would be extraordinary, of course, if Aboriginal people in 1788 had possessed little or no knowledge of the properties of seeds, soil and water, their forebears having occupied the continent at least 50,000 years. Small scale and incidental sowing, however, does not constitute agriculture(My emphasis)

I address Pascoe’s use of Kimber in the latest edition of Bitter Harvest and have come to the same conclusion as Keen.

One fascinating contribution to the debate will, apparently, be presented in the forthcoming book by anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe.  From Keen:

As Sutton and Walshe show, Dark Emu ignores the extensive anthropological corpus of ethnographies based on long-term fieldwork among groups still reliant on hunting and gathering, in favour of the casual observations of particular groups by travellers passing through the country, as well as early settlers. In a very strong argument against the thesis that Aboriginal people were farming in 1788, Sutton and Walshe show comprehensively that, with the exception of some clearly introduced examples and recent modifications of local expressions, Aboriginal languages lack vocabularies associated with gardening and agriculture. This evidence for the absence of agriculture among speakers of the languages examined appears to be conclusive, since one would expect the languages of peoples who have practised agriculture over a long period to have adopted or developed a specialised vocabulary for food species, implements, procedures, etc., as is the case in proto-Korean and proto-Japanese.

Unsurprisingly, despite a seven-page dissertation on language in Dark Emu, which I have described as ‘somewhat rambling, consisting of a series of non-sequiturs, that makes it look a bit like a cut and paste exercise’ Pascoe has not managed to stumble upon the above gem.

Keen’s paper comprehensively covers the major sections of Dark Emu relating to agriculture, aquaculture, housing, storage, irrigation and settled communities.  It is not possible in this essay to cover his treatment of all these topics, so let me content myself with one more example. I refer to the ‘eel farms’ at Lake Condah, a complex now known as Budj Bim.  Again, Pascoe’s treatment of this site is another issue that I cover in some detail in the new edition of Bitter Harvest.  From Keen:

The most egregious claim for large settlement in Dark Emu is the case of supposed towns in the Western District of Victoria, supposedly based on aquaculture. Pascoe draws on a study by Heather Builth (2000, 2002) according to whom the extensive fish and eel canals found in the Western District were built by Aboriginal people for aquaculture. There is in fact no evidence that the structures were used for breeding fish or eels. Rather the structures channelled waters along the natural drainage lines and so guided the migration of aquatic species, and provided the infrastructure for the insertion and use of woven fish traps. The stone work has been dated at up to 7–6000 years old.

Pascoe also uncritically accepts Builth’s proposal that a hierarchical society with a very high population density and large villages and towns was based on the large scale smoking and storage of eels and fish taken from the canals and traps. The inference of large settlements was based on interpreting the majority of stone circles found in the region as the bases of dwellings, leading, together with assumptions about household size, to an estimate of a population of some 10,000 people. The problem is that stone circles in the region frequently occur naturally, formed by large stones being clustered around the bases of large trees, and left after a tree has burnt and rotted away. Builth claimed to have eliminated such cases through statistical analysis of the distribution of stone in the circles, but Sutton and Walshe cast doubt on the adequacy of her methodology. Annie Clarke (1994) has commented that the sites of Lake Condah and surrounding properties have become mythologised in the archaeological literature and in the realm of public knowledge.

Furthermore, Sutton and Walshe question Builth’s interpretation of evidence of the presence of fatty acids in the remains of hollow trees, purportedly from the smoking and storage of fish and eels. Not all such fatty acids derive solely from aquatic species, and fatty acids could have been deposited in a variety of ways, for example by predators of fish, including birds and quolls. There is also no evidence of structures used for smoking and drying inside remaining hollow trees.

In an additional methodological flaw, traces of fatty acids inside hollow trees were not compared with traces in the general area, so that it is not clear that more eels and fish had been located inside trees than outside. In support of her story Builth (2002, 208) presents a cropped image of an 1862 painting by Blandowski, purporting to show a man smoking eels in a hollow tree. The uncropped image shows people smoking possums out of trees, and preparing possum skins for cloaks. The image therefore appears to have nothing to do with smoking eels.

Much of what Keen says above, I have included in Bitter Harvest, however I was unaware of the doubts concerning the provenance of the fatty acids found in the hollow trees and the touch of cropping an image to remove inconvenient elements, well that would seem to be Pascoe’s standard operating procedure in miniature.

Keen summarises his position thus:

The article finds that while the boundary between foraging and farming is a fuzzy one, Aboriginal people were indeed hunters, gatherers and fishers at the time of the British colonisation of Australia.

The strategy Keen employs is, for the most part, to indirectly critique Dark Emu by exposing shortcomings in Pascoe’s sources, in particular, the works of Rupert Gerritsen and Bill Gammage, upon which he relies heavily.  In my view this was the correct strategy, since these two are often the fall-back position of those (admittedly few) Pascoe defenders who actually read any critiques of their hero, but it has meant that, unavoidably, he has let Pascoe off lightly.  Let me re-iterate, Pascoe is not merely wrong or misguided or misinterpreting his sources.   He is a charlatan who needs to be exposed.

Nonetheless, it has been a long wait for the groves of academe to produce a serious challenge to Pascoe and to buttress the work of myself and the researchers at the excellent Dark Emu Exposed website.  So bravo, Dr Keen.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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