Book Review: Dark Emu. Black Seeds: agriculture or accident by Bruce Pascoe


Chris Johansen

Until I saw Bruce Pascoe on a TV program, I think it was “Big Ideas” on ABC, it did not enter my consciousness that Australian Aboriginals practised agriculture long before, and right up to, the European invasion. My perception was that pre-invasion Aboriginals were merely nomadic hunters and gatherers, not fitting into any accepted definitions of sedentary agriculture. A really shocking realization for me – passing myself off as an agricultural expert but totally ignorant of the pre-occupation agricultural history from whence I came.

Dark Emu (Magdabala Books 2014) documents the agriculture practiced by Aboriginals across the country before 1788. It includes widespread cultivation of native yams (root crops, similar to potato), which is not very surprising as this is the traditional and current staple foodstuff of the Pacific islands and New Guinea. It also documents how native grasses were selected for their seeds, and grown over large areas, with the grain used for their flour in a similar way as for wheat, barley, corn, etc. Further, evidence is produced that they herded and corralled kangaroos using brush fences and nets, to separate males for consumption but draft off the females to ensure sustainability of the kangaroo population. Also, there were many sophisticated methods of trapping fish, some of which are in evidence today (but the early documentation used this as evidence of the “laziness” of those fishers – just sitting down and watching the fish get caught!). Not to mention irrigation systems, stone and clay-rendered dwellings, and sophisticated food storage systems. At first glance, all of this may seem like Dreamtime dreaming, so what was the evidence?

The evidence is drawn from the journals/diaries/log books of the early European explorers and settlers, thoroughly referenced in the book. The permanent yam fields of Victoria were quickly destroyed as the Europeans moved in with their sheep and cattle, which chewed off the yam plants to ground level. Aboriginal “villages”, with their elaborate huts (not just bark propped against a tree as is the popular perception), grain storage facilities and water wells, were destroyed in the various (forgotten) wars that inevitably erupted as the Europeans took over the land. The invaders did not like to leave behind any evidence of “villages” as this would signify sedentary occupation and thus negate “terra nullius”, the justification used by the invaders for the next 200 years for their occupation of the land.

The entries in the journals/diaries/log books of the early European explorers and settlers took two extreme forms. On the one hand they downplayed the sophistication of the civilization that they saw, to justify the civilized vs savages theory. On the other hand, in some instances, they extolled the sophistication of what they saw, which was used as evidence that there must have been some other sophisticated civilization present before occupation by the existing indigenous population. The same sorts of attempts to underestimate indigenous achievement were used in North America and Zimbabwe (the Shona “cities”, attributed by the European colonists to all manner of outside influence rather than the Shona themselves). Since 1788 official historians have mostly ignored the references of the early European explorers and settlers as to the sophistication achieved by the indigenous people, to justify “terra nullius” and thus the usurpation of indigenous lands. Our official historians were certainly successful, as evidenced by my own perception (until reading this book) that pre-1788 indigenous people were nothing more than nomadic hunter gatherers.

This book is excellently written, thoroughly researched and referenced, and is (understandably) passionate about the misrepresentation given to the original inhabitants of “terra nullius”. Some of the wording I find quite profound, such as: “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.” I hope that this book and its content eventually finds its way into school history curricula, such that kids coming through are not peddled the same misconceptions about human habitation of this continent that I was. Rather ironic that I am well versed in the evolution of agriculture in Mesopotamia, Europe, South Asia, China, the Americas, Africa, etc., but only learned about this topic as it applies to Australia after reading this book.