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Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu and Aboriginal Agriculture

By Janien Ferguson, AlburyCity Learning Outreach Officer

Bruce Pascoe, a man of proud Tasmanian, Bunurong and Yuin heritage, has written a new book that will astonish and surprise, causing you to re-evaluate what you thought you knew about Aboriginal culture before European colonisation.

A prolific writer and meticulous researcher, Pascoe’s work includes many fiction titles for adults and young people, as well as Aboriginal language and history texts. His work has attracted numerous literary awards and his latest work, Dark Emu – agriculture or accident? won the New South Wales Premiers’ Book of the Year 2016 .

This remarkable book adds to the work of Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia) in challenging the claim that pre-colonial Aboriginal society was essentially a hunter-gatherer one. Dark Emu presents a radically different picture of Australia’s original inhabitants and how they maintained the land around them over millennia.

From journals and diary records of early explorers and surveyors, Pascoe has gathered astonishing descriptions of Aboriginal life prior to colonisation. In their travels through colonial Australia, Mitchell, Sturt plus other explorers and settlers wrote vivid descriptions of the scenes they encountered, often describing Aboriginal people, their sophisticated dwellings, engineering feats and irrigation systems.

They also described the cultivation of vast land areas for yam fields and the harvesting, storage and milling of grain crops. ‘The evidence insists that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer tag,’ writes Pascoe.

Myths about the lives of pre-colonial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have proven to be deeply entrenched, but Pascoe’s work casts new and, perhaps for many of us, unexpected light on the nature of Aboriginal society in Australia before European colonisation.

In employing these diary records from the first European explorers, Pascoe challenges existing narratives around housing construction, cooking and clothing prior to European settlement and argues for a revision of our understanding of pre-Colonial history. “Aborigines did sow, grow, irrigate, preserve and build. Hunter-gatherers do not do that. Time to look again.”

Bruce Pascoe is in Albury this evening, to learn more about his work, drop into the Albury Entertainment Centre from 6 to 7pm. For more information about this and other Sustainable Living Festival events see: alburycity.nsw.gov.au/slf2016.