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Book review: Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate rigorously critiques Bruce Pascoe's argument

By Christine Nicholls - posted Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Eminent Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and respected field archaeologist Keryn Walshe have co-authored a meticulously researched new book, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. It's set to become the definitive critique of Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu: Black Seeds - Agriculture or Accident?

First published in 2014, Pascoe's Dark Emu has spawned numerous derivatives. Pascoe contends that in pre-contact times, Australian Aboriginal people weren't "mere" hunter-gatherers, but agriculturalists. Descriptors like "simple" or "mere" are anathema to people like me who've lived long-term with hunter-gatherers.

For many Australians, Pascoe's book is a "must-read", speaking truth to power. For such readers, Dark Emu seems a breakthrough text. Not so, in Sutton and Walshe's estimation. Nor mine.


Underpinning Dark Emu is the author's rhetorical purpose. This proselytising is partly achieved by painstaking "massaging" of his sources, a practice forensically examined by Walshe and Sutton. It has led to converts to Pascoe's dubious proposition. But this willingness to accept Pascoe's argument reveals a systemic area of failure in the Australian education system.

On the basis of long-term research and observation, Sutton and Walshe portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state.

In their book, they assert there was and is nothing "simple" or "primitive" about hunter-gatherer-fishers' labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Not agriculturalists

As Sutton attests, seeds were and are occasionally deliberately scattered. But in classical Aboriginal societies they were never planted nor watered for agricultural purposes. Such aforementioned rituals are collectively called "increase ceremonies". Sutton's alternative term, "maintenance ceremonies", invokes spiritual propagation as opposed to oversupply.

Their objective was continuing subsistence. Australia's hunter-gatherer-fishers left an extremely light carbon footprint - the diametric opposite of many contemporary agricultural/industrial practices. The photo below, taken in 1932 or earlier, shows Pilbara people throwing yelka (nutgrass) - not threshing or scattering seeds.



'Increase ceremony' for yarrinyarri (nutgrass), north-west Australia. Ralph Piddington, 'Totemic system of the Karadjeri tribe', Oceania 4, 1932, pp. 376–93, Plate II.

Pascoe's sources and approach

Pascoe draws on records of explorers and early colonists, also citing recent works, including Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Dark Emu leans most heavily on the work of the late historian/ethnographer Rupert Gerritsen.

Counter-intuitively, Pascoe mainly cites non-Aboriginal sources. There is no real "voice" given to the few remaining people who lived traditional lives as youngsters, or are cited in books or articles

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This article was first published on The Conversation.

Farmers or Hunter Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate is published by Melbourne University Press and will be released 16 June 2021.

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About the Author

Christine Nicholls is an honorary lecturer at the Australian National University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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