Contested grounds

On Dark Emu’s version of Aboriginal history
by
August 2021, no. 434
Buy this book

Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?: The Dark Emu debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe

Melbourne University Press, $34.99 pb, 288 pp

Contested grounds

On Dark Emu’s version of Aboriginal history
by
August 2021, no. 434

Listen to this review as read by its author.

 

For anyone who has spent substantial time recording Aboriginal cultural traditions in remote areas of Australia with its most senior living knowledge holders, bestselling writer Bruce Pascoe’s view that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists has never rung true. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate – co-authored by veteran Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – has already been welcomed by Aboriginal academics Hannah McGlade and Victoria Grieve-Williams, who reject Dark Emu’s hypothesis that their ancestors were farmers (like Pascoe himself).

Stephen Bennetts reviews 'Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu debate' by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe

Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?: The Dark Emu debate

by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe

Melbourne University Press, $34.99 pb, 288 pp

Buy this book

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Comments (4)

  • Christine Nicholls, you have misread my comment. To make it clearer, it is Sutton and Walshe who criticise Pascoe for presenting ‘A secularised notion of Aboriginal cultivation, devoid of spiritual dimensions, [that] did not exist in Australia before conquest' (p.45). It was taken up by reviewer Stuart Rintoul as an important element of the Sutton and Walshe criticism of Pascoe. The criticism is repeated on p.24: 'In contrast to the picture conveyed by Dark Emu, ... reproduction of plant and animal species was not through physical cultivation or conservation but through spiritual propagation'. Pascoe was neither ignorant nor oblivious to this.
    Posted by Barry Morris
    08 August 2021
  • In saying that 'professional right-wing provocateurs like Andrew Bolt and NSW One Nation leader Mark Latham' are likely to appear as writers taking Bruce Pascoe's 'Dark Emu' apart in 'Quadrant', Stephen Bennetts is presenting an extreme possibility. To my knowledge, the editor of that journal, Keith Windschuttle, has not acceded to submission of articles by those two gentlemen. There have been, however, a couple of articles therein which contest Pascoe's claims. Historian Michael Connor's article in the April 2021 edition of 'Quadrant', which critiques the 'fictions' of Indigenous novelist Tara June Winch, includes reference to Pascoe and Winch's wholesale adoption of some of his erroneous claims. Peter O'Brien in 'Bitter Harvest' (published by Quadrant, 2020) cast a critical eye over Pascoe's scholarship, and found it lacking, anticipating some of the findings of the more recent publication of judgements by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe. I find it a little surprising, and somewhat curious, that there has been little reference to O'Brien's work by those two academics, at least in the reportage of their work. Not having read their 'Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?', I stand to be corrected. O'Brien has written, 'I freely concede I am not a historian – but my book thoroughly demolishes the case that he has presented in support of his theory. In fact, ''Dark Emu'' is based almost entirely on falsehoods, misrepresentations, deceptions, and inflammatory rhetoric. ' (https://www.spectator.com.au/2021/03/trapped-in-the-peoples-republic-of-wikipedia/). I believe that a reading of O'Brien's book supports the bases for his arriving at such a conclusion. That Sutton and Walshe may have made little or no reference to O'Brien's work in 'Farmers' might be understood in terms of the force of peer review which operates in historical or any serious scholarship, particularly that bound to or issuing from academic institutions or the work of qualified historians. Joanna Hackett's piece 'The Amazing Bruce Pascoe: Australia's Leonardo' in Quadrant July-August 2021 issue is an edgy satire, hardly a diatribe. It does not offer comfort: satire never does. It took a Victorian judge in a case involving - two decades or more ago - that sparkling satirist Barry Dickins, ever-ready to wander into human foibles, to remind us to wake up to cant and the lyric, fantastical seriousness of the kind called lies or concoction. Both Dickins and Hackett have deft hands. I am pushed to see how Hackett could be 'like' Bolt or Latham. Stephen Bennetts might be making dark enemies where there are none.
    Posted by Jim Daly
    02 August 2021
  • To Barry Morris: where you've written, 'By contrast, for Sutton and Walshe, ''Dark Emu'' presents ‘a secularised notion of cultivation devoid of spiritual dimensions’, I'm afraid the point you are trying to make is simply wrong. The authors of 'Dark Emu Debate' (particularly Peter Sutton) emphasise hunter-gatherer-fishers' 'spiritual propagation' of species and more generally, country, repeatedly throughout their book, which you fail to mention. If this is not underpinned by 'religious purpose', what is?
    Posted by Christine Judith Nicholls
    02 August 2021
  • Engagement in the 'Dark Emu' debate is fraught with contradictions. There can be little doubt that Bruce Pascoe’s selective use of colonial British observations does little to further his argument. Yet, these flaws in Pascoe’s work, as they should be, have been picked up in critical reviews. The uncritical, almost celebratory tone of a number of reviews of 'Hunter Gatherers or Farmers' leads me to ask whether Stephen Bennett’s review, like others, is a review or a hagiography? There has been little of the accustomed critical engagement with the book. So what do I make of the repetitive claim, repeated by Bennett, that it is Pascoe who adds the pejorative term ‘mere’ to hunter and gatherers, when Pascoe’s own expression is 'the belief that Aboriginal people were ''mere'' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession' (p129). Similarly, what do we make of Pascoe’s inclusion of the anthropological research of Deborah Bird-Rose and Bill Stanner, from which Pascoe concludes: ‘There is no separation between the sacred and non-sacred, as all actions are steeped in religious purpose’ (p.127). By contrast, for Sutton and Walshe, 'Dark Emu' presents ‘a secularised notion of cultivation devoid of spiritual dimensions’. The reflection on Stanner, Elkin, and the Berndts in the review is interesting in revealing the passage of time in anthropology itself. What would Stanner and his contemporaries make of an anthropologist’s claim to have engaged in 87 land claims? For Stanner, Elkin and the Berndts' research occurred at a time when it was assumed in settler states like Australia that Indigenous peoples were destined to disappear. Elkin, of course, was a major advocate of assimilation as the solution. Since then, much progressive change has occurred as Indigenous peoples speak for themselves as visible activists involved in their own politically specific struggles and social and cultural renewals both nationally and internationally.
    Posted by Barry Morris
    01 August 2021

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