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Dark Emu: pre-colonial Aboriginal society

Dark Emo book cover

Australia should be proud but few learn this in school.

“IT IS EXCITING to revisit the words of the first Europeans to ‘witness’ the pre-colonial Aboriginal economy. In Dark Emu, my aim is to give rise to the possibility of an alternative view of pre-colonial Aboriginal society”, Bruce Pascoe writes in the introduction to his award-winning historical account, Dark Emu.

Using first-hand accounts from early settlers, Pascoe delivers a compelling argument that Australia’s Indigenous population were not hunter-gatherers. Rather, that they were knowledgeable and skilled in the areas of agriculture; aquaculture; storing and preserving their food; as well as constructing impressive and habitable dwellings.

By definition, evidence of such progress in food and living leads to the idea that the Aboriginal people were a complex and advanced society. Using evidence of dating structures used or made by the Aboriginal people, Pascoe illustrates that some structures dated back to 40,000 years.

“It’s hard to get much statistical basis for the claim that the Brewarrina (fish) traps are the oldest human constructions on Earth. An archaeological team calculated the age of 40,000 years, but considered that be a minimum, given the nature of their analysis”, Pascoe writes.

Dark Emu includes riveting evidence of how well Aboriginal people cared for their land. Using descriptions and accounts from early colonists, we are able to access a picture of a lush, tamed Australia, where food was bountiful in the form of native flora and fauna.

Reveal of housing, agriculture,
land management, peaceful government

The biggest reveal is perhaps of the dwellings, some of stone and wood, some like New Guinea long houses, that Aboriginal people constructed and lived in. These houses belie their hunter-gatherer tag, indicating ownership of the land. Colonists such as Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell, when exploring Australia, remarked on the impressive and permanent structures that Aboriginal people built.

Mitchell writes that the housing indicates a more permanent lifestyle of settled habits and came to admire the Aboriginal house: “I began to learn that such huts, with a good fire before them, made very comfortable quarters”. Additionally, these ‘huts’ are telling of a settled society with permanent living and social quarters, and not quite what we would expect from a society of transient hunter-gatherers.

Practical and beautiful land management

The Aboriginal methods of land management were not just practical, but aesthetically pleasing. Surveyor Thomas Mitchell noticed the beauty of the country but considered it an accident: “We crossed a beautiful plain; covered with shining verdure, and ornamented with trees, which, although ‘dropt in nature’s careless haste’, gave the country the appearance of an extensive park.”

Pascoe highlights how native plants and animals provided the Aboriginal people with vital nutrients. Coupled with the Indigenous people’s way of hunting and preserving crops and animal species, they also ensured that the population of marsupials and the yield of crops such as the native yam remained high.

One way they managed this, was through ‘fire-stick farming’. The Aboriginal people learned extensively when and how to burn on the land, ensuring that destructive bushfires didn’t decimate their surroundings. This was vital for native flora that flourished in the ashes, but also for the herding of native animals to protect crops.

What was and might have been

Throughout Dark Emu a prominent theme is of colonial efforts destroying the land of the Aboriginals. Pascoe also illustrates that the settlers and Indigenous population could have succeeded together to live off the land in harmony, if only the settlers took the time to employ Aboriginal methods of living.

For example, Pascoe writes of Aboriginal populations living and prospering on the banks of the Darling River “utilizing the natural conditions and developing the endemic grains and tubers”. But as was common during European settlement, the destruction of the area was swift – “few [settlers] bothered with the evidence of the existing economy because they knew it was about to be subsumed”.

Dark Emu  is an engaging account of Aboriginal life before and during European settlement. It contains information that is riveting and gives evidence of an advanced and ancient society that Australian’s should be proud of.

On the back of the latest edition of his book, Bruce Pascoe sums it up perfectly: “If we look at evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did  build homes; did  build dams; did  sow, irrigate and till the land; did  alter the course of rivers; did  sew their clothes; and did  construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more”.

Dark Emu  by Bruce Pascoe
Magabala Books, $19.99

BACKGROUND IMAGE: Dillybags (Pandanus fibre), Arnhem Land, Australia.

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