‘Dark Emu injects a profound authenticity into the conversation about how we Australians understand our continent ... [It is] essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what Australia once was, or what it might yet be if we heed the lessons of long and sophisticated human occupation.’ Judges for 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards
Dark Emu puts forward an argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. The evidence insists that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating, and storing — behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer tag. Gerritsen and Gammage in their latest books support this premise but Pascoe takes this further and challenges the hunter-gatherer tag as a convenient lie. Almost all the evidence in Dark Emu comes from the records and diaries of the Australian explorers, impeccable sources.
Bruce’s comments on his book compared to Gammage’s: “ My book is about food production, housing construction and clothing, whereas Gammage was interested in the appearance of the country at contact. [Gammage] doesn’t contest hunter gatherer labels either, whereas that is at the centre of my argument.”
In this brisk and lucidly written account, independent scholar and filmmaker Pascoe persuasively challenges the conventional wisdom of Australian historians, politicians, and textbook authors that the indigenous inhabitants of the continent were primitive hunter-gatherers who wandered "from plant to plant, kangaroo to kangaroo, in hapless opportunism." This idea, he writes, has often been used to justify the dispossession of the country's First People in favor of those who would supposedly use natural resources more efficiently. But in examining the writings of the first explorers and colonists, Pascoe found them filled with references to "industry and ingenuity applied to food production" by indigenous Australians, contradicting the rationalizing stereotype. He demonstrates that they intensively cultivated land, engaged in sophisticated forms of aquaculture, including the construction of dikes and fishing weirs, built substantial houses, developed effective forms of food storage and preservation, and used controlled fires to regenerate soil fertility. He also points out the supremacist mindset that enabled Europeans to suppress their own and others' awareness of this evidence and propagate the myth of indigenous Australians as primitive, although he does not delve into why it continues to dominate popular culture. This is an important and deeply researched reinterpretation of Australian history and a stark warning about the danger of accepting received wisdom at face value.