Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bruce Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture

Dark Emu is a remarkable book that deserves to be widely read and discussed. Firstly it is a fascinating discussion of the history and culture of Australia's Aboriginal people before European colonial arrival. But it is also a brilliant, and very readable, account of how that history was distorted, covered-up and forgotten in order for the colonial powers to develop their own political and economic structures that benefited a new capitalist order.

I suspect that most people who pick up Dark Emu might believe, at best naively, that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers before the arrival of Europeans. Using primary and secondary sources Bruce Pascoe shows that this is completely erroneous and, Pascoe argues, prevents us developing a clearer understanding of both historical Aboriginal society and how that relates to contemporary political, environmental and social politics:
Arguing over whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gather system or one of burgeoning agriculture is not the central issue. The crucial point is that we have never discussed it as a nation. The belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession. Every Land Rights application hinges on the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did nothing more than collect available resources and therefore had no managed interaction with the land... If we look at the evidence... and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their closes and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, Aboriginal, pre-contact society was not just one of nomadic hunter-gatherers, though, as Pascoe points out that does not mean there were no communities like this.
It may be that not all Aboriginal peoples were involved in these practices, but if the testament of explorers and first witnesses is to be believed, mos Aboriginal Australians were, at the very least, in the early states of an agricultural society, and, it could be argued, ahead of many other parts of the world.
But the crucial thing is that Aboriginal societies were dynamic - they changed and evolved. And in most areas, by the time of European arrival, Aboriginal communities had developed complex systems of agriculture, aquaculture and villages.  For instance, Pascoe describes the work of archaeologist Heather Builth who shows how a complex system of fish traps at Brewarrina, in NW New South Wales, supported a community of about 10,000 people in a "more or less sedentary life in this town". With such a large population, people would have needed to store food and Builth shows how food was smoked and stored and "formed the basis of trade with regions in New South Wlaes, South Australia and other parts of Victoria".

The evidence for complex human society (particularly agriculture) from archaeological sources as well as records of early European colonists and explorers is incredible. What is even more shocking is the way that this evidence is dismissed, ignored and hidden. Part of the reason for this is the racism of the European eyewitnesses. There is an incredible example of this from the accounts of James Kirby who , in 1843, explored an area which not not yet seen European colonisation. He describes (using racist language) an ingenious fishing device whereby people fished with an rod in tension that when triggered by a fish, "threw the fish over the head of the black [the Aboriginal fisher], who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again". Kirby interprets this in the most racist way. Rather than be amazed at the semi-automated fishing system, he says he has "often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true".

All human societies transform the landscape they inhabit. This is not usually recognised about the Aboriginal people because of the inherent racist assumption that they were savages who existed simply through an negative relationship with their environment. Again, the opposite is true. In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, a section that has particular resonance given the recent horrific wildfires in Australia, Pascoe shows how Aboriginal agriculture frequently relied on regular firing of the bush to encourage conditions for improved farming. Europeans, on arrival, feared fire and so they didn't use it to clear land. Ironically this encourages the conditions for more power fires, and undermined the fertility of the land itself: "Changing the timing and intensity of fires radically changed the nature of the country, so that what had been productive agricultural land became scrub within a decade." Fire was "part of a planned program of cropping or". This has implications for how we understand the Australian landscape. Pascoe quotes archaeologist Rhys Jones:
What do we want to conserve, the environment as it was in 1788 or do we yearn for an environment without mas, as it might have been 30,000 or more years ago? If the former then we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions. 
But this also has implications for continued agricultural practices that, driven by the desire to maximise profits, encourage environmental degradation and make fires more likely.

Pascoe doesn't pretend that Aboriginal societies were without conflict. Though he does point out that judging Aboriginal society by standards of European "civilisation" means that you miss the democratic, sustainable, non-hierarchical society that was able to provide for the needs of thousands of people for centuries. Nonetheless I think Pascoe is guilty of some naivety when it comes to understanding why, for instance, European societies were brutal and exploitative, and Aboriginal societies were not. It is clear, for instance, that class society had not developed in Aboriginal communities - historical development elsewhere in the world demonstrates that the invention of agricultural allows the creation of a surplus which can (I emphasise can) lead to the development of class society. When European colonialists arrived and smashed up Aboriginal society any further development was ended. What Pascoe makes clear is that had this development not been prevented, the peoples of Australia may well have begun the long historical road to further evolution of society - the had clearly already begun to develop complex agricultural based societies. But it is not inevitable that any future development would have retained social mores that made Aboriginal society so different to that which supplanted it.

Pascoe's use of source material shows what had long been hidden. Aboriginal societies, prior to the arrival of Europeans, were complex and extensive. But I am not sure how unique this is. Pascoe makes some reference to other pre-capitalist, indigenous societies. This could have been developed more and I think would have illuminated the way that capitalism has only succeeded through the destruction of other modes of production. Unfortunately for the limited analysis of this aspect of his argument Pascoe relies on the work of Gavin Menzies, whose work has been discredited.

However this does not discredit the arguments that Pascoe is making. In fact, I'd suggest that Dark Emu is one of the most important contributions to understanding the Aboriginal history that has been hidden and forgotten. It is also a powerful critique of contemporary Australian society - a society where the very land burns because profit is more important than people.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

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