Here’s the stereotype. Aboriginals are nomadic and primitive. They survive as hunter-gatherers. Bruce Pascoe — a writer of Tasmanian, Bunurong and Yuin descent — knows the myth.

Australians make plastic figurines of Aboriginal men standing on one leg, spear in hand, waiting for the windfall kangaroo

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (Magabala Books 2018)

But there’s more. Civilization comes to Australia with the Europeans — free or convict. When their ships land in the 18th and 19th centuries, Australia is a veritable Eden, untouched and pure, begging for colonization.

Europe was convinced that its superiority in science, economy, and religion directed its destiny. In particular, the British believed that their successes in industry accorded their colonial ambition a natural authority, and that it was their duty to spread their version of civilisation and the word of God to heathens.

With Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe is trying to rewrite Australian history.


For example, pre-contact Australia is anything but untouched. Pascoe points to the fish ponds, weirs and dams carved into the shoreline. The cunning stone locks and the elaborate fish traps

comprised [of] massive boulders, which were moved into position using long poles lashed to the stones — the natural buoyancy provided by full tide helped move the boulders to create walls.

Early settlers steal fish from Aboriginal ponds. Some leave payment in the form of mirrors and beads. There is a brief period of cooperation between European whalers and the Yuin who know how to lure whales to the coast.

Ritualised interaction with killer whales encouraged the mammals to herd larger whales into the harbour, where they would be driven into the shallow water and harvested by the Yuin, who would then share the feast, not just with neighbouring clans, but with the killer whales themselves, who would receive the tongue.

The cooperation ends when a European settler shoots the lead killer whale.


Settlers find grassy plains, terraced gardens, and large hoards of seeds. Aboriginal societies are adept at each of the 5 activities we define as agriculture:

selection of seed, preparation of the soil, harvesting of the crop, storage of the surpluses, and erecting permanent housing for large populations.

Early European explorers find Aboriginal settlements housing thousands. But the findings are suppressed in favor of a legal fiction. Terra nullius, the right of settlers to occupy empty land.


The only thing the settlers truly fear is fire. When the weather turns hot and dry, they try to protect themselves by banning fires.

By contrast, Aboriginal people use fire. They burn their fields according to a strict schedule that avoids harming crops and animals. Then, they mix the resulting ash with compost to enrich the soil. Aboriginals call it firestick farming.

When European settlers erect fences, the controlled burning ceases.

Within years of Aboriginal people being prevented from operating their traditional fire regimes, the countryside was overwhelmed by understory species.

Those understory species, the highly flammable bark of eucalyptus trees, the branches and leaves and twigs allowed to collect on the ground: this is the fuel load that fires Australia today.

Rain Dreaming

How does Pascoe know all this and Australian historians do not? He uses the same sources: the diaries, letters and reports of European explorers, settlers, and colonial officials. But Pascoe looks past the blinkers of racism to see the grain fields and the fisheries.

Pascoe first published Dark Emu in 2014. 28 reprintings later, Dark Emu also exists in a children’s version and will soon become a TV documentary. However, not all the attention is positive. Right-wing commentators attack Pascoe for his scholarship, his person, even his right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

When Pascoe visits Gwion Gwion in 2009, the resident art expert tells him that an ancient Asian race made the rock paintings. Aboriginals aren’t capable of such beauty. Racism prevented 19th century settlers from recognizing Aboriginal achievements. It still does today.

But combating racism is not the purpose of Dark Emu. Nor does Pascoe suggest a sentimental return to a lost way of life. His sights are on the horizon.

He’s calling for research into Aboriginal agriculture and aquaculture techniques. We might be able to adapt some of those techniques to meet our modern needs. If so, Australians could achieve a more sustainable way of life.

If we could reform our view of how Aboriginal people were managing the national economy prior to colonisation, it might lead us to reform the ways we currently use resources and care for the land. Imagine turning our focus to the exploitation of meat-producing animals indigenous to this country. Imagine freeing ourselves from the overuse of superphosphates, herbicides and drenches. Envisage freeing ourselves from the need of fences, and instead experimenting with grazing indigenous animals and growing indigenous crops.

14 Mar 2020 | Karen Kao