Bruce Pascoe is one of the most confronting Aboriginal writers active. I support his cause of re-evaluating the legacy of pre-invasion Australia but I was a little annoyed by his book Convincing Ground (2007), which was mainly about the way the land was stolen in Victoria. I have no arguments with his history (Convincing Ground is a massacre site near Portland) but the frequent editorialising and sarcastic anger, however understandable, hampered his important message and diluted its impact. So while I’d heard much about Dark Emu (2014), I’d resisted it until this year.
While the editorialising tendency is still there in Dark Emu, Pascoe has kept his anger, sarcasm and moralising mostly in check and instead compiles a well-researched and persuasive account about the little known human building activities in Australia before 1788. This account is important because a subtle (and sometimes blatant) racism still exists in Australia predicated on the notion there was no civilisation or agriculture on the continent before Europeans arrived and the land was “there for the taking”, terra nullius or not.
Dark Emu’s evidence proves this was nonsense. Pascoe is inspired by two books written since he published Convincing Ground: Rupert Gerritsen’s Australia and Origins of Agriculture (2008) and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate (2011). Both works challenge the stereotype Indigenous Australians were all nomadic hunter-gatherers, Gerritsen through his study of food production and Gamadge through his study of fire management regimes.
Pascoe explored the journals of explorers and early colonists who invariably believed in British superiority and the right to occupy supposedly empty lands. They downplayed the significance of what they saw. But the evidence from their journals seeps out in repeated references to dam and well building, the planting, irrigating and harvesting of seed, storing surpluses, and building warehouses, homes and even cemeteries, none of which fit the hunter-gatherer stereotype.
Settlers disguised the war by which they took possession of a land and it suited them to deny the existence of a prior economy, so it was written out of the Australian story. But it remains in explorer Thomas Mitchell’s diaries. In the Darling Basin in 1835 he saw how the Bagundji people harvested native millet: “the grass had been pulled and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hayfield … we found the rick, or hay-cocks, extending for miles.” Nearby, Mitchell saw large village huts “made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre” which housed a thousand people.
In Western Australia explorer George Grey found a village on the Gascoyne River “built of large-sized logs”. Grey found deep wells, huts plastered over with clay and turf, and land planted with yams. He said it was the result of hard manual labour. “I could not believe it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish”. Yam daisy or murnong farming was spread across Australia with First Fleet captain John Hunter saying people in Sydney were dependent on them and “Protector” GA Robinson seeing women digging for them in Victoria.
But their techniques of good soil management were ended by war and occupation and yam farming disappeared in a generation. Settler Isaac Batey noted “another factor of destruction in the soil becoming hardened with the continuous trampling of sheep, cattle or horses”. Ethnobiologists found pre-colonisation yam farming techniques included a systematic tilling process which aerated the soil, loosening it for seed germination and incorporated ash and compost material.
Grains were a crucial staple. White bushie Walter Smith noted how Central Australians carefully spread grains by hand, then spread dirt and waited for rain. Domesticated grains were a precious commodity traded in sealed parcels. There is evidence at Cuddie Springs, Walgett, of seed grindstones 30,000 years old which Pascoe says makes “these people the world’s oldest bakers by almost 15,000 years”.
Another native food plant was nardoo. Burke and Wills died because they did not know how to use it but nardoo was crucial in inhospitable areas because it could grow on the beds of shallow lakes. Aboriginal people swept the seeds in stockpiles and processed it into flour stored in vermin-proof vessels. The bush tomato became dependent on Central Desert people for its propagation and spread, promoted by selective burning near campsites. Surplus was ground to a paste and rolled into balls lasting a year or more. For thousands of years Aboriginal people harvested rice known for its drought-surviving qualities and its ability to be planted in brackish water.
Irrigation was also used. Walter Smith remembers seeing Aboriginal people build a dam and irrigation trenches. People dug in a line and scooped out the earth to form a bank, before trampling the clay base and using ant nest material to firm it up. One dam on the Bulloo River in Western Queensland was 100 metres long capable of holding 700,000 litres of water. Explorer Ernest Giles found a 1.5m high dam in the Nullabor capable of watering seven men and 22 camels for a week.
Aboriginal people also targeted kangaroos sometimes with 2000 people driving game 30kms to a dispatch point using netting and kilometres of fences and walls. They were herded into holding pens with narrow apertures which could direct the males to be slaughtered and others to escape. Fire techniques were also used to herd roos.
Pascoe looked at two large-scale aquaculture projects at Brewarrina in NSW and Lake Condah in Victoria. The Brewarrina fish traps may be the oldest human structures on earth, possibly 40,000 years old. Witnesses who saw it in operation in the 1800s were astounded by the efficiency of the trap, the number of people involved and the enormous harvest. The rocks were arranged into patterns and fish were herded in through small openings. The stone locking system with arch and keystones was engineered to fix the trap to the stream bed. Breeding stock could pass through and families managed each pond in an integrated and sustainable way.
At Lake Condah, the main catch was eels. The fish traps there are 8000 years old. There are hundreds of metres of excavated channels and dozens of basalt block dam walls. Nets and weirs were used to impound fish for a largely sedentary population. At Condah there is evidence of eel smoke houses. Condah and Brewarrina both supported large populations, but similar smaller scale fishing systems existed across Australia, even in parched areas like the Strzlecki Desert.
Adroit use of fire was another tool of Indigenous Australians. Early pre-historians assumed the firing of the bush was a simple method of providing green pick to attract game but is now seen as wholesale land management. Low-level burns were done in mosaic patterns with better soils used for production while inferior soils were left for forest. Aboriginal people burned land in a rotating mosaic at a time of year dependent on the weather, the type of country and its condition. They avoided certain plant growing seasons and advised neighbouring clans of planned burns.
Gammage wrote fire shaped the land and noted the park-like conditions early settlers observed. When Aboriginal people were prevented from their usual practices the countryside was overwhelmed with understorey species and what had been productive agricultural land became scrub in a decade. Pascoe says infrastructure like buildings, fences and power lines complicate similar methods today “but does not prevent it”.
Pascoe says Aboriginal architecture, agriculture and aquaculture remains stubbornly outside Australian folklore. The determination of colonial Australia to discount Aboriginal achievements has passed into contemporary society. It suits too many people to claim Indigenous people were “nomads” with no concept of land ownership. But they did own the land, using natural conditions – no matter how harsh – and developing endemic grains and tubers. They farmed, they lived in villages and built houses, they harvested cereals, managed complex fisheries and led sedentary agricultural lives most Australians still imagine was not possible before 1788. As we move further into climate emergency, we need to cast aside this structural racism. We must proudly embrace this startlingly ingenious ancient culture and learn what it has to offer about how to survive in this land for millennia.