Response to ‘Dark Emu’

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PREAMBLE: December 2019.  I wrote Response to Dark Emu in April 2019.  It is now December 2019 and a controversy has arisen within and outside the Aboriginal community around the claims in the book and Bruce Pascoe’s background, with some questioning and others supporting the research analysis.  As in my initial response below, many Australians were excited to read this book and to have, finally, a compact consolidation of information about early Australian Aboriginal life.  No doubt the conflict will play out in the media until a definitive answer is reached.  In the meantime, encouraged by an article in The Saturday Paper, I am happy to stand by my original response.  And I stand with Professor Marcia Langton in her commentary on the questioning of his background.

I’ve just finished reading Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe[i], and was challenged by a contact to follow up and write a response.  I’m not sure if what I will have to say will add anything to the information out there, but here we go.

For a while there have been a number of articles online and through my networks about how badly we, that is the general Australian public, have got ‘it’ wrong;  the ‘it’ referring to the truth about pre-colonial Indigenous Australian presence and civilization.  It is not so much that the early Europeans who were dumped here, as well as those coming by choice as explorers and claimers of land did not know, they did, and recorded it in their journals and letters.  It is more that this truth was never recorded in and taught as part of accepted Australian history, and my understanding is that it is still being ignored.

Bruce Pascoe has done the research through the journals and letters, and the drawings that accompany them, as well as archaeological evidence, and consolidated the research into compelling evidence of pre-colonial Australian Indigenous life:  of permanent and semi-permanent settlements and villages; of agriculture, irrigation practices, and food preservation and storage; of animal husbandry and aquaculture; and of inter-tribal, or clan group, co-operation and trade.  What existed here were thriving communities, not only the ‘hunter-gatherers’ depicted in accepted Australian history.

Why has this early history been ignored?  Well, that is what conquerors do.  They dehumanize and devalue those who are already living in the territory they wish to conquer so that they feel justified in doing so.  In 1998 I wrote a text for the video which became the hypothesis for my thesis.  Part of it follows.

‘I am a displaced woman
Living in a strange land,
     not mine by right
But claimed by my recent past

My people came from the North
What is it about the North that gives “right of possession?”
The right to see a land
     and a people
          and say
               and feel
that it is O.K. to take possession
That we are more civilised
     and will benefit those already on that land
That we will bring a better morality
     a better understanding of life
     a better experience of life
That we have the answers.

The vanity.....the foolishness...’[ii]

What is also interesting is the continuing affect this paternalistic, Eurocentric attitude has on what the rest of the world considers to be important, and what we study and learn.  Last year I read of the discovery of stone pillars in Turkey of 10th to 8th millennium BCE – ‘the world’s oldest known megaliths’ – and that religion in the area appears to have an earlier history than previously considered.  Well, apparently Australia had its own ancient standing stones positioned in a way that could have had cosmological significance – how come I wasn’t taught that?

The regions around Turkey and the middle East have long been perceived as the beginnings of modern civilization, when hunter-gatherers began to settle, and from where their practices spread.  However that may be an illusion.  All history is interpreted from the perspective of whoever is interpreting it and information available.  What if, at the same time or even before, Indigenous Australians had also settled and engaged in similar practices of planting, harvesting and storing local strands of grain, baking bread and cakes, corralling animals and building permanent homes?  What then?

The other accepted story is that we all emerged from East Africa, travelling north-east and then split off; groups moving north, or further east, and some moving through the south of India to Australia.  From the Human Journey,[iii]

‘Another hypothesis is that Homo erectus reached the Near East about 125 KYA and from there they moved across Asia and into Europe around 43 KYA in one direction, and east to South Asia, reaching Australia around 40 KYA in the other direction. East Asia was reach by 30 KYA.’

However, what if this is not the case, as seems to be one of the underlying questions in Dark Emu.  This year I came across an article which placed humans in Australia 120,000 years ago, not long after it is accepted that humans arrived in the Near East.[iv]   While I respect, have great interest in, and support The Human Journey project, the above information clearly needs to be updated, and I’m sure it will be as information comes to hand.  However it is the Western bias of archaeology and interpretation which continues to prioritise the information that reaches the general public and becomes ‘fact’.

Pascoe also challenges the Western mindframe and history of dependence on conquest, innovation and intensification in contrast to early Indigenous Australian’s culture of kinship and cosmology (spiritual), sharing of resources, the land viewed as being held in common, and an aim of continuance. The types of crops and agricultural practices, the aquaculture system, and the land caring and clearing practices all worked with the Australian environment, not against it.  To continue with my 1998 text,

‘Yet we bring in all the trappings of an alien life
     and suffocate what is already there
          alien food
          alien clothes
          alien morality
          alien spirituality
          alien lifestyle
Nothing...not one thing

So we fight...and fight...
     to survive
Fight the land
     Fight the people of the land
We do not listen
     We do not see
     We do not respond
until we have created a environment
     that is our own
Then and only then do we feel
     a sense of place
But it is an alien place in this land
It sits on top...
               all that is here
All that makes this land itself.’

Earlier this year I read Position Doubtful by Kim Mahood (Australia, Scribe, 2016).  I was struck by her need to repeatedly return to the country in which she was born, to remember and reinforce her connection on a deeper level.  On page 213 she writes,

‘Finding an iconography and an organising principle that was embedded in my own hybrid European-Antipodean culture became my driving preoccupation.  The ancestral imprint that gave the desert paintings such authority and power was not available to me.  Nor were the domestic and ceremonial elements of women’s paintings.  I needed to find an equivalent that belonged to my own culture.’

It so reminded me of why I travelled the well-worn track of my thesis, both physically and theoretically, and that this project continues to haunt me and has been part of the way I define myself.  I would like to think that if the forebears who made decisions about acceptable history and education had had the foresight to include the real pre- and post- colonial history warts and all, as well as the language and permitted songs, dances and beliefs or cosmology of Indigenous Australians, I would not have been left feeling so alienated later in life as I became aware of that loss.  I would like to think that as a child I would have found it fascinating and fun.[v]

Dark Emu presents the real pre-colonial history which included alternatives to our current agricultural and animal husbandry practices, alternatives that work with the land rather than against it.  It seems to me that Pascoe is hoping that the rest of Australia will wake up so that the next generation of Australians will learn another way, especially as we seem to be losing the race with self-sustainability and climate change.

We have an election coming up.  The current government is focusing on economic prosperity and growth, and seems to be ignoring the cost in environmental and human terms;  the opposition and some other candidates, including the Greens, are championing climate change, sustainability, alternative energy sources, education, and health with a focus on community.  The Indian-owned Adani coal mine has just been given the go ahead by the federal government in spite of opposition from many Australians, including the traditional land owners who are now being threatened with covering Adani’s court costs.  So I guess we will see what the majority of Australians really do care about, and if they are yet ready to listen.

To continue,

‘And what of our spirituality?
Those religions which came with us from the North?
     from elsewhere?
They also sit on top
     uneasy in their new location
Imposing their rituals
     their beliefs
     their festivals
     their seasons
on a place that does not connect...communicate

Their place...their heart...
     like the people who worship them
          is not here.
It is in another land
where they make pilgrimage
          always away...
               never here...
                    never here

How then can we aliens feel a sense of place
     of belonging
     of home
     of spiritual home
when we ignore and are ignorant of all that is here...
     that was here from the beginning?

Can we recover what was lost...
     connect with what was ignored...
          or is it already too late
               too late to make a beginning
                    to take the first step
                         to take time to make the first step?’

c. Annette Maie, 2019


[i] Pascoe, Bruce, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture.  Broome, WA, Magabala, 2018 (2014).  Reconciliation NSW has put together a recommended reading list on Indigenous Australian cultures, history and politics, 10 Recommended books

[ii] Women and the Land, 1998.  At the time of my own gaining awareness, sorting and writing I did not go so far as say ‘murder those already living on the land’, but that is the reality of what occurred.  A continually updated Map of known massacres of tribes in Australia is available.  It is an eye-opener.



[v] I was so impressed by the response of New Zealanders to the murders of Moslem worshippers this year, including the young people of many nationalities joining their Maori brothers and sisters in performing the traditional Haka: such a symbol of unification tied to the longer heritage of that land.  I remember in the 1970’s being taught a Haka by a New Zealander of European descent, yet he had learnt the movement and song at school.  At that stage the hidden story of Indigenous Australians had not yet reached me, although now I am aware that the reaching out had begun decades earlier.