Bruce Pascoe is of Bunurong, Tasmanian, and Yuin heritage.
Award winning Author, Writer and Film Producer.
I have lived in Australia for almost fifteen years and I am ashamed to say it is only in the last two or three years I have learned that although Australian Aboriginals were sometimes hunter-gatherers, they also lived in towns of up to a thousand people, they built houses, and they were sedentary enough to have systems of agriculture and trading, to set large-scale fishing traps, and engaged in crop-saving irrigation practices. Archaeologists are now discovering artefacts, artworks and other evidence of Aboriginal life which attest to the fact that they were not solely hunter-gatherers. Author of Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe, through extensive research, has revealed the huge amount of information about the sedentary life of Aboriginals verified by early explorers and settlers in their diaries, in both the written word and sketches.
Dark Emu reveals how colonizers eventually destroyed the very settled Aboriginal way of life; their agriculture, their plants, their houses, their land; these supposedly ‘civilized’ invaders massacred First Australians in their thousands whenever they tried to defend their culture, their women, or their land. To justify this destruction of a culture that had survived in Australia for up to 80,000 years, successive writers and governments have set out to create the myth that Australian aboriginals were “savages” or “blacks” who aimlessly roamed the continent as hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal children were taken from their families by Christian missionaries and placed in orphanages to “save them” from a “savage” and “heathen” upbringing.
Pascoe has much to say about the deliberate ‘cover-up’ of a pre-colonial Aboriginal democracy which had allowed ‘the great Australian peace’ across the continent for thousands of years. Tribes worked with each other sharing the land and whatever was harvested from it; flora and fauna alike. They stored and preserved food, they ground a type of flour and they baked a basic damper bread. David Maybury-Lewis, was professor of anthropology at Harvard University in the early 1990s when he included these statements about Australian Aboriginals in his book ‘MILLENIUM; Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World’:
*If one were asked to state briefly and succinctly what are the outstanding positive features of Aboriginal civilization, I for one, would have no hesitation in answering:
*Respect for the individual, irrespective of age or sex.
*The amazing degree of social and political integration achieved by them.
*The existence there of a concept of personal security which transcends all governmental forms and all tribal group interests and conflicts.
*The possibility of conceiving of an individual alone in a tribal sense is ridiculous…the very complexity of tribal life and the interdependence of people on one another makes this conception improbable at best, a terrifying loss of identity at worst.
So much of what Pascoe writes about in Dark Emu is in harmony with the above academic statements; but further, he gives us an in depth analysis drawn from his own ancestral knowledge of pre-European Aboriginal life, and backs this up with compelling evidence gained from his research around the early explorers’ and settlers’ diary notes, stories and sketches held in libraries and museums around Australia. He also discusses how Australian Aboriginals managed the threat of bushfires and how they used the best land for agriculture and the poorer, less productive soils for growing trees, planted in specific formations. They had a spiritual and emotional connection to the land; a great understanding of fire and how to control it. Tribes harvested a variety of yam and many other ‘bush tucker’ plants across their land, but later all were destroyed by herds of cattle and sheep brought in by the early settlers.
In Dark Emu, Pascoe brings home to us that we can no longer assume our 21st century ‘developed’ way of life represents the most advanced stage of progress and that Aboriginal society was less successful, less meaningful than our ‘superior’ society today. Surely this knowledge will enlighten us, open up the richness and variety of what it means to be human and perhaps we can learn from the peace and harmony evident in pre-colonial Aboriginal tribal life.
To me, their spiritual beliefs such as ‘Dreamtime’ make far more sense than the religion of Christianity ever did; Aboriginal spiritual beliefs are intertwined with the land, and I wonder if we had followed their path in this regard instead of trampling all over it with introduced cattle and sheep, or by planting out pastures never suited to such a dry continent, would Australia be burning as it is right now, in catastrophic bushfires?
If you haven’t already read Dark Emu please do so, and encourage your children and grandchildren to read it, or read it to them, like I have done.
– Anne Frandi-Coory. 9 January, 2020