Dark Emu

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Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?
AuthorBruce Pascoe
Publication date

Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? is a 2014 non-fiction book by Bruce Pascoe. It reexamines colonial accounts of Aboriginal people in Australia, and cites evidence of pre-colonial agriculture, engineering and building construction by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A second edition, published under the title Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture was published in mid-2018, and a version of the book for younger readers, entitled Young Dark Emu: A Truer History, was published in 2019.

Both the first and the children's editions were shortlisted for major awards, and the former won two awards in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. The book has also proved very popular with the Australian public, selling 250,000 copies by mid-2021. Its strengths have been said to lie in the storytelling style, making it more accessible to the general reader than the more scholarly examinations of Aboriginal history in the past.

The accuracy of Dark Emu has been debated in the Australian media and political spheres, and some academics have criticised Pascoe's thesis that Indigenous Australian society was based to such a large extent on sedentary agriculture rather than hunting and gathering. It has, however, been welcomed as a contribution to further investigations into Indigenous history.


The first edition, entitled Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, was published by Magabala Books in 2014. The title refers to what is known as the Emu in the sky constellation in Aboriginal astronomy, known as Gugurmin, or "dark emu" to the Wiradjuri people.[1][2]

A second edition, entitled Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture was published in June 2018,[3] and a version of the book for younger readers, entitled Young Dark Emu: A Truer History, was published in 2019.[4] The 2019 version was shortlisted for the 2020 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature in the Children's Literature Award section.[5]


In Dark Emu Pascoe draws on the writings of early British settlers and recent decades of scholarship to argue that traditional Aboriginal society was characterised by agriculture, aquaculture, elaborate engineering, villages of permanent structures, and other features which are incompatible with the view that Aboriginal Australians were only hunter-gatherers.[6][7] He states, "The belief that Aboriginal people were ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession."[8]

Pascoe quotes Charles Sturt, Thomas Mitchell and other explorers and settlers who describe Aboriginal hayricks, stooks, crops and villages, and Aboriginal people practicing seed selection, soil preparation, crop harvesting, and storing surplus crops.[8] He also describes Sturt's 1845 encounter with hundreds of Aboriginal people who were living in a village near Cooper Creek and offered him water, roast duck, cake and a hut to sleep in.[9][10] Pascoe concludes that, "most Aboriginal Australians were...in the early stages of an agricultural society, and, it could be argued, ahead of many other parts of the world."[11][7]

Pascoe provides evidence of Aboriginal dams, weirs, sluices and fish traps, and argues that pre-colonial Aboriginal people practiced aquaculture.[12][13] He cites the work of archaeologist Heather Builth and palynologist Peter Kershaw and concludes that sites at Lake Condah in western Victoria are elaborately engineered eel and fish traps associated with permanent stone buildings built by the Gunditjmara people around 8,000 years ago.[14][13]

Pascoe quotes nineteenth century accounts of Aboriginal people living in villages and towns with sturdy huts, the largest of which could accommodate 30-40 people. Sturt reported a town of 1,000 people on the Darling River. Pascoe states that towns such as the collection of stone structures at Lake Condah are evidence of sedentary or semi-sedentary Aboriginal culture. He concludes, "Permanent housing was a feature of the pre-contact Aboriginal economy, and marked the movement towards agricultural reliance."[15][7]

Pascoe acknowledges his debt to the work of Rupert Gerritsen, who in 2008 published Australia and the Origins of Agriculture, which argued that some Aboriginal people were farmers as much as hunter-gatherers. Pascoe also draws on the work of historian Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2012), which looks at how Aboriginal people used fire, dams and cropping to support themselves sustainably in their environment.[16][7]

In the last two chapters of Dark Emu, titled "Australian Agricultural Revolution" and "Accepting History and Creating the Future", Pascoe advocates for changes in current Australian methods of agriculture and lifestyle.[17] Pascoe says that Australia could learn from Indigenous culture and landcare, replacing wheat with native grasses and eating kangaroo rather than cattle.[18][7]


Sales and reviews

The book received critical acclaim, winning two NSW Premier's Literary Awards (Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writers' Prize)[19] and being shortlisted for two other prizes (the History Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards and Victorian Premier's Award for Indigenous Writing),[2] as well as mainstream recognition.[20][21][22] It was reviewed by three Australian teachers' associations,[23] earned positive reviews in other media,[24][25] and, with the highest number of nominations by members of the public, was chosen to be the first book discussed in the inaugural meeting of the Parliamentary Book Club.[26][27] A new edition was published in 2018.[28] By mid 2021 the book had sold 250,000 copies.[29] There is an audiobook and ebook version.[30]


Historian Bill Gammage, whose 2012 work The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia influenced Dark Emu, praised Pascoe's gift for weaving a narrative that challenges many readers' preconceptions. He admired the book for its impact, but added that Pascoe sometimes romanticises pre-contact Indigenous society, and his claims that Stone Age Indigenous people invented democracy and baking may be "push[ing] these things too far".[22]

Lynette Russell, at Monash University's Indigenous Studies Centre and co-author of Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to Early Zoology,[31] admired Dark Emu's achievement in popularising ideas that challenged European Australians' cultural preconceptions.[22] She said that it had managed to promulgate more widely "information about indigenous land management practices that archaeologists have known for a long time".[32]

Tony Hughes-D'Aeth, a researcher in cultural history at the University of Western Australia, said that Dark Emu "provides the most concerted attempt [yet] to answer the question about the quality of the country...in the pre-colonial epoch", and that the book's strengths lie in "its ability to bridge archaeology, anthropology, archival history, Indigenous oral tradition and other more esoteric but highly revealing disciplines such as ethnobotany and paleoecology".[21]

Writer and historian James Boyce, after some discussion of the book's strengths and weaknesses, says that, although a "flawed attempt", the book's appeal is to "a community of folk who... are eager to learn from and engage with First Nations peoples and their heritage"; Pascoe is a skilled storyteller, and Dark Emu is a significant cultural achievement because it has engaged these readers, where many other examples of scholarly information have not done so. While there is no single narrative that tells the whole story, Dark Emu might be the first step for many readers who have not previously engaged with the history of dispossession of the Indigenous peoples of Australia.[29]

Pascoe's friend, writer Gregory Day, thinks that Pascoe's book connects with general readers because "he knows what it feels like to be a whitefella – in a sense, Bruce is translating it for this whitefellas".[22]

Debate and criticism

Pascoe's book has been extensively debated in Australian media and political spheres.[33]

Several academics have criticised Pascoe's claim that since 1880 scholars have suppressed accounts of sophisticated housing and food and environmental management practices in traditional Aboriginal societies. Peter Hiscock, chair of archaeology at Sydney University, archaeologist Harry Lourandos, who documented the construction of eel traps in Victoria in the 1970s, and Ian McNiven of Monash University's Indigenous Studies Centre all agree that there is a large body of published work on the topic. However, Lourandos and McNiven are delighted at the book's success in reaching the broader public.[22]

Some academics have specifically addressed the debate surrounding Dark Emu's thesis that Indigenous Australian society was largely built on sedentary agriculture rather than hunting and gathering. Anthropologist Ian Keen argues against Pascoe's thesis that Indigenous Australians practised agriculture. He concluded that "Aboriginal people were indeed hunters, gatherers and fishers at the time of the British colonisation of Australia", although acknowledging "the boundary between foraging and farming is a fuzzy one".[34]

Historians Lynette Russell and Billy Griffiths wrote that Pascoe had drawn together an enormous amount of ethnographic evidence showing that Aboriginal peoples "were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers"; however, they challenge the implicit Eurocentric idea that agriculture is the result of "progress" on a continuum from hunter-gathering, or that such an evolutionary hierarchy exists. They argue Western terminology lacks nuance, and "Communities have shifted between these categories and moved back and forth as suited their needs".[35] James Boyce echoes this view: "The 'progress' inherent to a move from foraging to farming has been questioned by historians, anthropologists and archaeologists for more than 50 years... there was rarely a sharp line between farming and hunter-gatherer ways of life".[29]

In Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021),[36] anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe suggest that Dark Emu devalues pre-colonial Aboriginal society, privileging agriculture above a hunter-gatherer socio-economic system.[37][38] They also criticise the work on grounds of being poorly researched, not fully sourced, and selective in its choice and emphasis of the facts.[39][40] In James Boyce's opinion, their most salient criticisms include that Pascoe uses white explorers’ journals, ignoring the knowledge of Aboriginal sources, and also that he generalises from local examples and claims incorrectly that such technologies were used across the continent. However, he is also critical of some aspects of Sutton and Walshe's work.[29]

Aboriginal human rights advocate Hannah McGlade, a Noongar woman and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, writes in The Australian that Dark Emu is "misleading and offensive to Aboriginal people and culture" and that it "is not very truthful or accurate".[37][41] Warrimay historian Victoria Grieve-Williams,[42] also in The Australian, calls Dark Emu a scandal and a hoax, and expresses deep concerns in the Aboriginal community about the story Pascoe is telling, saying that her family were not farmers, but proud of being hunter–gatherers.[43]

After Pauline Hanson's One Nation MP Mark Latham proposed in the New South Wales Parliament in June 2021 that the book should be banned from use by teachers in NSW schools (where it is not part of the curriculum, but available as an historical source for critical discussion), his motion had little support. The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, later commented that he welcomed "more people taking the time to read Dark Emu and consulting Mr Pascoe’s references to verify or disprove his assertions as we do with various academic studies or research... What’s important here is that we are open to hearing other people’s perspectives, contemplating and genuinely engaging in working constructively together to reconcile our understandings".[41]

On 11 September 2021, Pascoe published in the Sydney Morning Herald a reflection in which he wrote:

There has been some criticism of my book, Dark Emu, but when I read the book, [Farmers or Hunter-Gathers? The Dark Emu Debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe], which claims to repudiate it, I was amazed at how frequently the writers agreed with me. The big sticking point seems to be what we call the precolonial Aboriginal economy and culture. I don’t really care what it is called as long as Australians are allowed to know that Aboriginal people sometimes lived in houses and villages, often employed technology to harvest food and sometimes wore cloaks and sewn apparel.
I want all Australians to know that their country had an automatic fishing machine, that Aboriginal people often built houses that could accommodate 50 people, that miles of aqueducts and channels had been built to harvest fish. I can’t believe anyone would not want their fellow countrywomen and men to have this knowledge about their country and not to consider what this says about our history. Whether the history is 65,000 or 120,000 years or more, we know that it is the oldest human civilisation on earth.
It’s not about a culture being better or worse than any other, it’s about the true history of the land and how the First Nations culture managed their economy and society. And how that sovereignty was taken away. It still surprises me that airwaves melt down when someone suggests that the invasion of Australia was just that, an invasion.[44]

Stimulation of further studies

Archaeologist Michael Westaway and Joshua Gorringe consider Dark Emu in relation to the archaeological research in the Channel Country in central Australia, which has identified more than 140 sandstone quarry sites, including the largest seed grinding quarry site in Australia, the remains of pit dwelling huts known as gunyahs and evidence of trade with other communities as far away as Mount Isa, and asks "Could this trade system have played a role in the development of more intensified quarrying activity and more sedentary settlement systems?". Contemporary archaeological research suggests there is not a simple dichotomy between farming and hunter-gathering by the First Australians. They say that "Gerritsen’s research and Pascoe’s popularised account have inspired and stimulated a different way of thinking about Aboriginal food production systems, and how we might investigate an archaeological record for Aboriginal village settlements... Dark Emu provides a different account of the Aboriginal past, written by an Aboriginal person outside of the academy, which challenges us to think differently about how we might define Aboriginal people... it is up to archaeologists now to test Pascoe’s hypothesis".[45][46] The area is on trade routes used by First Nations people.[47] The Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, representing the native title owners, has published a framework to support culturally sensitive and ethical research in the area.[48][49]

Awards and accolades


See also


  1. ^ Kendall, Ross (16 October 2020). "65,000 years of star gazing for Indigenous Australians". The Echo. Retrieved 16 July 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Pascoe, Bruce (2014). Dark Emu. Magabala Books. ISBN 978-1-922142-43-6.
  3. ^ Pascoe, Bruce (1 June 2018). Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture. Magabala Books. ISBN 9781921248016.
  4. ^ a b Pascoe, Bruce (2019). Young Dark Emu: A Truer History. ISBN 9781925360844. Retrieved 20 December 2019. {{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help)
  5. ^ a b "Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature". State Library of South Australia. Retrieved 20 December 2019.
  6. ^ Pascoe, Bruce (2018). Dark Emu, Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture (2nd ed.). Broome: Magabala books. pp. 1–2, 54, 68, 97, 232, and passim. ISBN 9781921248016.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Reading Bruce Pascoe | Tom Griffiths". Inside Story. 26 November 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  8. ^ a b Davis, Michael (2014). "Review of Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident". Aboriginal History. 38: 195–198. ISSN 0314-8769. JSTOR 43687015.
  9. ^ Allam, Lorena (23 May 2019). "Dark Emu's infinite potential: 'Our kids have grown up in a fog about the history of the land'". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  10. ^ Pascoe (2018) pp. 98-101.
  11. ^ Pacoe (2018). p. 58
  12. ^ Pacoe (2018). pp. 45-50.
  13. ^ a b Hughes-D'Aeth, Tony (15 June 2018). "Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture". The Conversation. Retrieved 17 November 2019. [Pascoe's] cards are on the table, but this does not mean that he is not a rigorous and exacting judge of the historical record.
  14. ^ Pascoe (2018). pp. 83-85
  15. ^ Pascoe (2018). p. 97 and Ch 3 passim
  16. ^ Pascoe (2018) pp. 231-33
  17. ^ Boyce, James (1 July 2021). "Transforming the national imagination: The 'Dark Emu' debate". The Monthly. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
  18. ^ Guilliatt, Richard (25 May 2019). "Turning history on its head". The Australian. Weekend Australian Magazine. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  19. ^ a b c Allam, Lorena (23 May 2019). "Dark Emu's infinite potential: 'Our kids have grown up in a fog about the history of the land'". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  20. ^ McQuire, Amy (25 May 2016). "Recognising Sovereignty: Bruce Pascoe's Latest Book A Dark Horse To Lead Battle Over Unfinished Business". New Matilda. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  21. ^ a b Hughes-D'Aeth, Tony (15 June 2018). "Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture". The Conversation. Retrieved 17 November 2019. [Pascoe's] cards are on the table, but this does not mean that he is not a rigorous and exacting judge of the historical record.
  22. ^ a b c d e Guilliatt, Richard (25 May 2019). "Turning history on its head". The Australian. Weekend Australian Magazine. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  23. ^ Agora, Nov 2014, Aboriginal History, Dec 2014, Teaching History, Dec 2016, Geographical Education (Online), 2017
  24. ^ Shalvey, Kris (7 September 2016). "Book Review – Dark Emu: Black Seeds". South Sydney Herald. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  25. ^ "Dark Emu, by Bruce Pasocoe". Goodreads. Retrieved 20 December 2019.
  26. ^ Morris, Linda (17 September 2019). "Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu is pollies' pick". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  27. ^ a b "Arts news — Federal politicians tasked with reading Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu". Radio National: The Book Show. 23 September 2019. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  28. ^ "Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, New Edition". New South Books. Retrieved 20 December 2019.
  29. ^ a b c d Boyce, James (1 July 2021). "Transforming the national imagination: The 'Dark Emu' debate". The Monthly. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
  30. ^ "[Search result for "dark emu black seeds agriculture or accident"]". Worldcat. Retrieved 20 December 2019.
  31. ^ Olsen, Penny; Russell, Lynette (May 2019). Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to Early Zoology. National Library of Australia. ISBN 9780642279378.
  32. ^ "Lecture and Book Launch: Australia's first naturalists". Whispering Gums. 13 June 2019. Retrieved 8 November 2019.
  33. ^ Marks, Russell (5 February 2020). "Taking sides over Dark Emu: How the history wars avoid debate and reason". The Monthly. Retrieved 23 June 2021.
  34. ^ Keen, Ian (2021). "Foragers or Farmers: Dark Emu and the Controversy over Aboriginal Agriculture". Anthropological Forum. 31: 106–128. doi:10.1080/00664677.2020.1861538. S2CID 232765674.[page needed]
  35. ^ Griffiths, Billy; Russell, Lynette (2018). Macfarlane, Ingereth (ed.). "What we were told: Responses to 65,000 years of Aboriginal history" (PDF). Aboriginal History. ANU Press. 42: 41. doi:10.22459/AH.42.2018.02.
  36. ^ Sutton, Peter; Walshe, Keryn (2021). Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing. ISBN 9780522877854.
  37. ^ a b Taylor, Paige (23 June 2021). "Darker issues at play over Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu". The Australian. Retrieved 23 June 2021.
  38. ^ Marshall, Konrad (12 June 2021). "'Black armbands or white picket fences': debating the Dark Emu divide". Good Weekend. Melbourne. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  39. ^ Rintoul, Stuart (12 June 2021). "Debunking Dark Emu: did the publishing phenomenon get it wrong?". Good Weekend. Melbourne. Retrieved 13 June 2021.
  40. ^ Chung, Frank (12 June 2021). "Author Bruce Pascoe's best-selling Aboriginal history book Dark Emu 'debunked'". News.com.au. Sydney. Retrieved 13 June 2021.
  41. ^ a b Chung, Frank (24 June 2021). "NSW to allow 'debunked' Dark Emu to remain in schools". NewsComAu. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
  42. ^ "Dr Victoria Grieve-Williams" RMIT University
  43. ^ Victoria Grieve-Williams (2 July 2021). "Dark Emu 'hoax': takedown reveals the emperor has no clothes". The Australian. Retrieved 12 July 2021.
  44. ^ Pascoe, Bruce (11 September 2021). "Call for conversation not screaming match about Aboriginal history". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 11 September 2021.
  45. ^ Westaway, Michael; Gorringe, Joshua (18 June 2021). "Friday essay: how our new archaeological research investigates Dark Emu's idea of Aboriginal 'agriculture' and villages". The Conversation. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  46. ^ Westaway, Michael C.; Williams, Douglas; et al. (16 June 2021). "Hidden in plain sight: the archaeological landscape of Mithaka Country, south-west Queensland". Antiquity. first view (382): 1043–1060. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.31. ISSN 0003-598X.
  47. ^ Mulvaney, D. J. (1976), The Chain of Connection: the Material Evidence, retrieved 18 June 2021
  48. ^ Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation (2017). "Ngali Wanthi Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation Research Framework" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 17 March 2021. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  49. ^ "Mithaka Cultural Mapping". ArcGIS StoryMaps. 4 August 2020. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  50. ^ "Lucashenko wins 2014 Vic Prem's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing". Books+Publishing. 4 September 2014. Archived from the original on 4 September 2021. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
  51. ^ "Dark Emu". Bangarra. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  52. ^ "Dark Emu to be adapted as TV documentary". ArtsHub Australia: ScreenHub. 21 October 2019. Retrieved 26 October 2019.

Further reading