Archive for April, 2016

DARK EMU by BRUCE PASCOE

dark emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? makes a claim on all Australians. It wants us to reimagine pre-colonial Australia. It wants us to look again and see something new. On the basis of the words in the first white explorers diaries, it wants us to acknowledge that our landscape, ‘the bush’, is a cultural artefact, a product manufactured and maintained by the oldest culture on earth. It is a strong claim and convincingly made. It argues that what the explorers report is clear. There was no ‘wilderness’ here in 1788, and there hasn’t been one here for 60,000 years. Instead there was a group of cooperating nations applying a shared technology and law, to meet their economic and cultural needs.

In a way it throws white Australia’s words back in our face. It seems to say, in a very polite way, we don’t know why but you seem to thinks its important to believe we were nomadic hunter gatherers that didn’t plant crops, build houses or use pottery. The problem with that is that on many occasions the descriptions of us written by your own people at the time of first contact describe us planting and harvesting crops, and living in villages with houses, cemeteries and food storage facilities. So why is it that you have paid no attention to the words of your own people? Is there a reason you want to think of us as hunter gatherers only? if it was to help you justify taking our land and murdering us – where does that leave you now?

The message and the method of the book can be illustrated by an example from pages 204 and 205. They contain a quote and a drawing from Major Mitchell describing an Aboriginal cemetery he saw on the Darling River. Both the description and picture of the cemetery make it sound absolutely beautiful, and extremely familiar to european eyes of either the 19th or 21st century. After describing it and drawing it he says

With all our art, we could do no more for the dead, than these poor savages had done

This quote sums up the book’s message, and method, because it uses one unedited sentence, directly from a famous explorer (in this case Mitchell), to show us:

  • Aboriginal people had cemeteries, of a kind we would recognise
  • they were constructed with paths and gardens and therefore Aboriginal society had all technical the skills and the organisational power needed to produce a manicured landscape on a large scale for a ceremonial purpose
  • the explorers knew of them, recorded them, and recognised the technology and organisation required to make them but managed to maintain their belief in the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal Australians
  • historians, and anyone else that has read the explorers diaries, must have known about these observations and knowingly chose not to tell anybody else about them
  • there must be reason for this selective and wilful forgetting.

All the book groupers loved the book. We were amazed we had never heard of all these observations before. The existence of the diaries and writings of all the famous white ‘exploerers’ was very well known to bookgroupers, as it is to all Australians because we have heard of people like Mitchell and Sturt, and read their quotes, our whole lives. But until now we were never told these writings included detailed descriptions, even drawings, of Aboriginal houses, crops, cemetaries, and large scale permanent fishing and and farming enterprises. Bookgroupers felt it was embarrassing and extraordinary that we didn’t know about any of this.

The book is very short and easy to read, which is a good thing, but in my case I found it a bit frustrating. Its argument is so convincing and so important i would have liked a lot more. Often it refers to other books and academic parers, just giving the reference and saying, ‘it reported this or that..’ but i often wanted the detail because i was so interested. However, I have to acknowledge the book is fully referenced, like an academic article, so i can go and look up all the references if i want to.

The first chapter deals with agriculture. Like the rest of the book, its full of quotes from the explorers. What these quotes clearly demonstrate is that Aboriginal people in a large part of Australia (a map of this region is provided on page 63) cultivated grain for processing, manufacturing and storage, while in other regions they cultivated various root crops generically called yams.

One of the quotes about grain crops is from Major Mitchell (p39)

the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest, 

One of the quotes about yams is from George Grey in Western Australia in 1839

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [the yam plant, Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles [5.6 kilometres] traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.

A key point to make about this chapter is the difference between it and what we have heard from other previous authors about Aboriginal land management. Tim Flannery talked about firestick farming in ‘the future eaters’ and Bill Gammage got a lot of press for the ‘the biggest estate on earth’ which made a similar argument to Flannery. That argument is referred to in this book and summed up with a quote it uses from Gammage saying ‘people farmed in 1788 but were not farmers’.

In my view though the quotes above, which are just a fraction of those in the book, seem to show that such a distinction is worthless. Whether you call them farmers or not, it seems clear that these people were doing agriculture, and that is not what we have been told.

The next few chapters of the book move on to what archaeologists call material culture – the stuff people make.

Remarkably, for those of us that grew up being told Aboriginal people did not build anything or live in one place, one of these chapters deals with housing. Two quotes from Major Mitchell illustrate its point in relation to housing

some huts… being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.14

In crossing one hollow we passed among the huts of a native tribe. They were tastefully distributed amongst drooping acacias and casuarinae; some resembled bowers under yellow fragrant mimosae; some were isolated under the deeper shades of casuarinae; while others were placed more socially, three or four together, fronting to one and the same hearth. Each hut was semicircular, or circular, the roof conical, and from one side a flat roof stood forward like a portico, supported by two sticks. Most of them were close to the trunk of a tree, and they were covered, not as in many other parts, by sheets of bark, but with a variety of materials, such as reeds, grass and boughs. The interior of each looked clean, and to us passing in the rain, gave some idea, not only of shelter, but even of comfort and happiness. They afforded a favourable specimen of the taste of the gins, whose business it is to construct the huts.141page 83

Another quote talks about stone houses big enough and strong enough to ride a horse over, which sounds extraordinary – and a little dangerous.

The book includes a lot of examples of material manufacture other than housing such as fish traps, wells, irrigation systems for harvesting water, and battues for harvesting wildlife, and food storage such as granaries.

Page 84 talks about the remains of a battue in Euroa in Victoria

This particular drive brought kangaroos from a huge flat area to the foot of the range and then shuted them into a series of holding pens where narrow apertures could direct animals designated for slaughter one way and those to be released in another.

The stone works and nearby housing associated with these drives represents an incredible labour investment and a move towards sedentism comparable to that represented by the fish traps at Lake Condah and Brewarrina. Sites such as these are begging for further investigation.

And on page 87 another quote from Mitchell talks about fishing nets

the net, which, even in quality, as well as the mode of the knotting, can scarcely be distinguished from those made in Europe

The final three chapters move on to what these observations mean. The discussion covers two issues:

  • what it says about white society that these observations have been ignored; and
  • what these observations say about the nature of pre-colonial Australian society.

On the first issue the book makes a number of hugely important points. Firstly it says we need to rewrite our history (p144)

the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.

As a natural resources person i think it also means we need to rewrite our science because it means the landscape we are seeing is not ‘nature’ its a farm. It reinforces the point Tim Flannery made 20 years ago that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is nonsense. This book reinforces the message. There has been no wilderness here for 60,000 years

Most importantly though, as the last chapter points out, we need to admit the obvious reason why the writers of white Australian history have wilfully ignored these specific passages of texts that they have analysed and reanalysed. All over the world colonisers have found it to be in their interests to present the people and the places they colonise as ‘primitive’. Its the ‘warping of history and archaeology…to justify extermination..’ (p348) and dispossession. That is what has gone on here. Its obvious and we need to admit it.

To his great credit Pascoe also acknowledges that an additional reason that we have not heard more of Aboriginal agriculture and material culture (beyond racism, colonialism, war and dispossession) maybe that it was women doing the agriculture and the building. All Pascoe’s quotes have the explorers saying it was the women building the houses, harvesting the grain and digging the yams.

I think he could have been much stronger on this point, but he does cite someone writing on a similar situation in North America and says

One of the further impediments to the revelation of this aspect ,,,was that the gardens were constructed and farmed by women and children — and such knowledge was never revealed to male archaeologists. Even after the engineering of the gardens had been examined by independent scientists, there was enormous reluctance to accept the results

On the second issue, of what these observations say about pre-colonial Australia, the book does get a little romantic at times, but less so than i expected. On page 144 he even anticipates the romanticism problem I was worried about

You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they are making guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary

True to his word he does largely avoid it although not entirely. For example there is a lengthy quote from Bill Stanner on page 283 that paints pre-colonial life in utopian terms.

However he absolutely nails the key message and the key way forward – that is -what do these revelations mean for post-colonial Australia?

Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people. Despair is reinforced every day an Aboriginal person has to argue for her pride in the past, for his determination to honour the achievements of the ancestors

In case you think my take on the book might be idiosyncratic. this blog compiles a lot of reviews of the book in the one place, and the quote below which echoes my view is from here

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. Accomplished author Bruce Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

As book grouper Trish put it – In addition to saying sorry we need to say thank you.

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April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am Leave a comment


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