Dark Emu: Precolonial Australian native society - agricultural or hunter-gatherer?

May 2011
2,652
Rural Australia
#1
https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Emu-New-Bruce-Pascoe-ebook/dp/B07DWLW3RV

‘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.

I'd like to discuss here:

(1) Was the Australian First People society "hunter-gatherer" or "agricultural"?, and ...

(2) If the latter, was it the earliest agricultural society?


The following initially expands each of these discussion points, and provides a range of links and references to assist the reader bring themselves up to date concerning the claims made in this book, and the historical evidence upon which these claims are based...

(1) Was the Australian First People society "hunter-gatherer" or "agricultural"?

The historical revisionism thesis of Bruce Pascoe: that the Precolonial Australian native society was not "hunter-gatherer" but distinctively agricultural. The sources of evidence used to argue this include literary references extracted from journals and diaries of the early Australian explorers (such as Sturt, King, Mitchell). Further evidence used includes early published illustrations. These show houses and villages, cemetries, fishing traps and eel traps. Below I have collected a number of links to informative content related to this thesis to assist in this discussion.

(2) If the latter, was it the earliest agricultural society?

Secondly one of the references in the book relates to the scientific dating of a number of seed-grinding stones discovered during an achaeological dig at Cuddie Springs, NSW. The dating is given as c.30,000 bp. The author argues that this is more than 10,000 years older than the age given for the earliest seed grinding evidence from Europe - in Egypt, c.19,000 years ago according to WIKI. This evidence, argues the author, makes the First People of Australia the first bakers, and the earliest known inventors of bread. I would like to discuss the evidence for these claims in order to evaluate their historical merit. Again, below I have gathered a few links related to this.



REFERENCES AND LINKS:
(1) Was the Australian First People society "hunter-gatherer" or "agricultural"?
REVIEWS and Summaries of Dark Emu


  • Australia's colonial history has characterised indigenous people almost exclusively as nomadic hunters. This exclusive extract from Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’, reveals a long history of indigenous agriculture, a history that predates the pyramids, but which was omitted from the history books.

    REVIEW with Summary of Evidence: Mat's Review at Goodreads (NOTE: The data presented in this review has been re-presented above in categories)
    Here are some quotes that jumped out at me: [Quoting explorer Charles Sturt:] "n walking along one came to a village consisting of nineteen huts... Troughs and stones for grinding seed were lying about... The fact of there being so large a well at this point... assured us that this distant part of the interior... was not without inhabitants.
    [*]
    SMH March 2003: For nearly 8000 years, the Gunditjmara people in the Lake Condah region of western Victoria farmed eels
    They modified more than 100 square kilometres of the landscape, constructing artificial ponds across the grassy wetlands and digging channels to interconnect them. They exported their produce and became an important part of the local economy. And then white settlers arrived and all they left of the Gunditjmara's thriving industry were several hundred piles of stones that had formed the foundations to the people's huts. Since the 1970s, archaeologists have suspected that the stone remains in the Lake Condah region were evidence that the local Aborigines had lived in villages. But it was not until an eight-year research project was carried out by a Flinders University archaeologist, Heather Builth, that the real importance of the remains became clear.

ON-LINE Public Presentations by Bruce Pascoe

 
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Jan 2015
3,351
Australia
#2
Let me save everyone the trouble of reading the above. You know how there is a desperate and inauthentic attempt to reinvent the history of black people so they had a more European history? Well, unsurprisingly there is a strand of academia that wants to do the same for indigenous Australia for similar reasons; and this being academia you'll always get wacky theories advanced to try and branch out into new conclusions. The evidence for such claims are incredibly slender and speculative, and defy what we actually know of early colonial Australia. They would not pass muster for a serious debate in European, Asian or South American history.

The indigenous people's did not have writing or tools, for agriculture or otherwise. They didn't have the freaking wheel, they barely had fire, and they didn't have clothes, etc. There is no way they had agriculture in the sense it is being used here. It's a waste of a thread to even discuss it. Things were a little different in the Islands to the north, etc, which had more interaction with other more developed countries. In that sense the Torres Strait Islanders are basically a totally different people to the mainland indigenous peoples.
 

Ayrton

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,156
Bendigo
#3
As an Australian who has read the book by Gammage, and know some Australian history, and one also only too familiar with the views of certain Australians who give no credit to the people whose land was invaded by Europeans, indeed, call an invasion a colonisation, the line between Indigenous hunter-gatherer and agriculture is fairly much blurred, can I say this thread is definitely not a waste of time and I am interested to hear the thoughts of others on this subject.
 
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Jan 2015
3,351
Australia
#4
The evidence will be completely unsatisfactory by the robust standards we apply to the history of continents like Asia or Europe, but sure listen away. I guess that's what happens when you are dealing with the most undeveloped continent and people it's possible to imagine. I'm not here to whitewash anything; plenty of bad things happened to the natives as a result of colonization (though to call it an invasion of a sovereign people is to misuse both those terms), and I'm glad they got more recognition from the 90's onwards in terms of land and a more accurate history. Unfortunately things are now swinging the other way where history is frankly being fictionalized on the most slender of pretexts, where mere scratch marks on a cave wall, a weird piece of wood, and some previously unheard oral tradition somehow constitutes evidence of an agrarian society or some other nonsense claim. There is no genetic inferiority or anything like that, the people's in Australia (whether it was the indigenous groups we have now, or the groups they wiped out 40,000+ years ago) developed as a result of random factors including environment. The fact remains though that it was a backwards society that had not even reached the level of development we'd have found in European or Asian countries thousands of years earlier. They didn't have clothing, writing, or the freaking wheel!

Ok, you can now continue with this preposterous exercise. I'm done.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,866
#5
It seems the argument may have been overstretched at times, but it doesn't mean that the writer doesn't have a valid point, and that the Australian Aborigines were more avancednthan people.commonly give credit to.

The Aborigines we see now were the ones on the land that wasn't wanted, marginal land. The more advanced aborginals would have been living on the better land, the land that was taken over. Those Aboriginals would have been kicked off, and perhaps losing any advanced features they might have had.

The article does raise an interesting point that if the Aboriginals did develop agricultural that early, why didn't they do more with it? Develop cities or towns of a few thousand? Develop large confederacies like the Iroquois League? Was it climate too dry? Were the native plants not suitable for intensive farming?

While the achievements of the Australian Aboriginals could be overlooked, I don't think a city of thousands or large villages cod have been, nor a large scale league of several tribes resisting settlement completely written out of the history books.
 

Ayrton

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,156
Bendigo
#6
I think the book by Gamage gives one plenty of thought. It is well researched ad when you actually read the book you realise he is right about how Aboriginals managed the landscape. That is the basic premise when you use the word ‘agriculture ’. NB I have not read the article and will needs do so. Maybe it is ideological and that’s what has upset you Caesarmagnus. No one likes an ideologue, lol.

I would suggest, though, that when one group goes into another group’s land and subjugates the population, it is an invasion. I know in Australia there are plenty of people who get hot under the collar when that term is used, but if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck... Invasions, for the record, have long been part of what we know as tribal humanity. Why people get so upset about the use of the word ‘invasion’ in relation to the taking of Aboriginal Lands is beyond me.

Edit: I see it is a book I must read. But I have read Gammage’s book about Australian Aboriginal management of their land. Reading some of the reviews for the Dark Emu book suggests to me the basic premise is the same. To suggest that we are talking about purely hunter gatherers is as silly as to say we are talking about lost Ancient Aboriginal cities. I hope Dark Emu is not claiming that.
 
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Belgarion

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,490
Australia
#7
These new 'theories' amuse me no end. Any schoolchild of the 1960s learned that the Aboriginals were a nomadic society who's various tribal groups followed a seasonal circuit that allowed them to survive and thrive without depleting the resources in a given area. As part of this circuit they would encourage various plants to grow by scattering seeds that would provide food by the time of the next visit. They also used rock fish traps and herded wild animals with fire, which also had the advantage of improving the land for various plants.

In that sense they were involved in 'agriculture' but not by any European understanding of the term.
 
Jan 2015
3,351
Australia
#8
I get annoyed because it’s plainly not accurate.

When you study law they teach you the legal concept of sovereignty; what it entails, and what it requires. It includes factors like clear borders and recognition of said territory. There is simply no way the indigenous people of mainland Australia meet these tests for sovereignty. Nobody disputes that the indigenous people existed prior to colonisation, but they were basically stone age nomads. I have seen people attempt to reconstruct imaginary maps showing the supposed territories of these people, based on the most slender of evidence imaginable. How you have clearly delineated borders across the whole of Australia when you have neither geography nor writing is beyond me; not everything is neatly separated by a convenient river. Nor do any of these maps ever suggest any movement of these tribes. Amazing, to think they had consistent hunting territories supposedly, yet never developed any way of recording this, and somehow maintained them indefinitely through thousands of years. Doubtless this was a result of the noble savagery of this undeveloped people; as though their lack of development was a conscious choice, to live in an Eden-esque garden without material wealth; *insert sarcasm here*. This self-hatred of capitalism and materialism among some academics, who projects these kinds of views onto an foreign people, is as ironically imperialistic as it is unsurprising. I for one do not mourn the loss of pre-colonial Australia, where life was “nasty, brutish and short”, and no sort of utopia whatever. Nor do I feel any guilt, since my grandparents all immigrated here (one side of the family fleeing the war; my grandfather was actually required to work in the desert on railway construction for 3 years in order to receive residency as refugee status didn’t exist at the time). Sovereignty is a European concept at any rate; if they don't like that their ancestors didn't meet it's standards, then they should invent their own word to describe their existence prior to colonisation. Co-opting a European term and misusing it isn't getting us anywhere.

The term invasion also makes little sense, unless any settlement of an occupied land is an invasion. Was the Jewish Diaspora an invasion? The purpose of coming to Australia certainly wasn’t to invade the place; it was a mission of exploration, which included Cook’s primary goal of observing the transit of Venus. There was settlement afterwards, but there was no plan to slaughter to natives because as far as they could tell from their point of view settlement was in no way incompatible with the natives existing in their nomadic lifestyle. That was a naive point of view obviously, inevitably clashes were going to happen between two cultures so disparate, but there was no genocidal intent (or genocide, unless we bend the term genocide until every people’s in history were genociders basically). Most indigenous people died of disease. There were certainly some massacres; though little coordination of them, and mostly the inevitable retaliations that were going to occur when indigenous people (shockingly) didn’t understand/respect European concepts of property (i.e. don’t steal our sheep, stay off my farm, don’t go near my daughters, etc). I don’t want to get into the genocidal part either, because it’s highly contentious, suffice to say it’s a stretch.
 
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Jan 2015
3,351
Australia
#9
These new 'theories' amuse me no end. Any schoolchild of the 1960s learned that the Aboriginals were a nomadic society who's various tribal groups followed a seasonal circuit that allowed them to survive and thrive without depleting the resources in a given area. As part of this circuit they would encourage various plants to grow by scattering seeds that would provide food by the time of the next visit. They also used rock fish traps and herded wild animals with fire, which also had the advantage of improving the land for various plants.

In that sense they were involved in 'agriculture' but not by any European understanding of the term.
Of course; nobody disagrees they had "fire stick farming", to the extent you can call that agriculture (like the worst form of it, which ruined the tropical nature of Australia probably- we could have had rainforests if not for this)
 
Aug 2014
3,611
Australia
#10
Australia has an area of over seven and a half million square kilometers covering eight climate zones and saw continuous occupation for sixty-five thousand years. At the time of white settlement there were around a million aborigines speaking over 700 languages in various parts of the country, suggesting that there were over seven hundred distinct cultural groups. It is pretty silly and naive to assume that they all lived the same way for all of that time. Some tribes were nomadic hunter gatherers, some were subsistence "fire-stick" farmers, and some practiced fully-fledged agriculture. They adopted whichever practices worked best in their local area.

The tribes who practiced agriculture were mainly on the coast in areas such as the Sydney Basin and they were the first tribes to be wiped out because they had the best land. By the time we started to seriously study aboriginal cultures in the early 20th century, only 50,000 aborigines from mainly nomadic tribes were left on the marginal land that nobody else wanted. Our view of aboriginal cultures is skewed because of the limited sample that was available to study. Modern archaeological and anthropological practices are starting to change that to give us a more accurate view of what Australia was really like before white settlement.

If the author of the above book is trying to claim that all aborigines practiced agriculture then that is just as stupid as trying to claim that all aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherers. I seriously doubt that the author is doing that. When you study law they also teach you to gather and analyse the evidence before building a case. It might be a good idea to actually read the book before jumping to unfounded conclusions.
 
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