Thursday, November 3, 2016

Dark Emu

Every Australian should read Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? At the very least, this mind-blowing book should be on the compulsory reading list for all secondary schools. It overturns all of our ignorant assumptions about pre-colonial times in Australia.

The book has received an overwhelmingly positive response on the Goodreads website, with a very high average rating of 4.5 out of 5, far in excess of most other books on this site. Nearly everyone leaving a comment agrees that this well-written, easy-to-read and relatively short book is essential reading for all Australians.

I was privileged to hear the author, Dr Bruce Pascoe, speak at the Melbourne Writers' Festival a few months ago. His emotion was obvious when he referred to archaeologists discovering grindstones proving that the Australian aborigine was grinding seeds more than 30,000 years ago. Being the first bakers of bread is an accolade usually given to the Egyptians around 17,000 BC. But as Pascoe says in his book, it was the Australian aborigines who were ‘the bakers of antiquity. Why don’t our hearts fill with wonder and pride?’ (Read more in the article The world's first baker: Australian indigenous innovation.)

As Pascoe spoke, I wondered whether our community’s entrenched views of Aborigines could be blamed on the first European settlement being beside Sydney Harbour, a heavily-wooded area on thin soils. It was not farming country, as the incoming settlers soon discovered. With sandstone caves providing a natural shelter for the indigenous population there was little need for housing structures. Many of the First Fleet journal keepers referred to the nakedness of the natives, but we forget that the incoming Europeans arrived at the height of summer, a time of year when many of today’s citizens of Sydney would wear no clothes, if they could get away with it. The first but false impression that the Aborigines were hunter-gatherers took firm hold.

Bruce Pascoe is from Victoria but well aware that Captain John Hunter reported in 1788 that ‘the people around Sydney were dependent on their yam gardens’. The word ‘garden’ is telling, its significant implication of permanent settlement having been ignored. Yams, a highly-nutritious form of sweet potato, were cultivated by a resident tribe, not gathered by wandering tribes. And, as Pascoe pointed out, the cattle imported in 1788 had escaped to the Camden region, where they prospered on these yam gardens until 1795, when exploring parties came across the escapee cattle, in prime condition. The area was promptly named as the Cowpastures.

After 1788 it took decades before European explorers found a way across the Blue Mountains and discovered that Aborigines lived in villages and towns and, aside from their yam gardens, they cared for a grain belt across most of inland Australia. His amazing map of this grain belt is produced in the article The world's first baker: Australian indigenous innovation. Today we heard news from the Flinders Ranges that shifted back by 10,000 years our knowledge of Aboriginal occupation of arid inland Australia, to 49,000 years ago. They possessed amazing technologies much earlier than we thought.

The back cover of Bruce Pascoe's book quotes him as saying "If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, 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.'

Now that I’ve read Bruce Pascoe’s book I fully accept the startling truths he espouses. The full range of his evidence is presented in chapters headed 'Agriculture', 'Aquaculture', 'Population and Housing', 'Storage and Preservation', 'Fire', 'The Heavens, Language and the Law', 'Australian Agricultural Revolution'.

But it was his closing chapter, 'Accepting History and Creating the Future', which really made me think. I’m sometimes irritated by the strident calls that we should change the day we celebrate as Australia Day because it was ‘Invasion Day’. From my perspective, Australia was always going to be invaded by someone. While the Aboriginal tribes had their own territorial boundaries they were not organised as a group to defend this large continent, whereas all other human societies fought strongly to protect territorial interests. Aborigines just weren't aggressive enough. It never occurred to me, until I read this book, that the age-old Aboriginal society might have evolved to a level of enlightened self-interest, mutual co-operation and steady-state economic welfare operating on a higher plane than existed elsewhere on this planet. In a way, the Aborigines were psychologically unprepared for people who did not play by their advanced rules.

The old ways of Aboriginal society tantalise us with a vision for a different more sustainable future for the world. Thus one of Pascoe’s closing remarks resonated with me: ‘It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate that fact that having said sorry we refuse to say thanks’.

I tried to see both sides of the settlement story when writing Robert Forrester, First Fleeter but the need to revise the book in the light of Pascoe’s insights has taken on a new urgency. A Second Edition will also include other research which has come to light in the eight years since the Forrester book first went to print. For example, it will consider another interpretation of the 1783 scam; it will correct reference to the non-existent orgy in February 1788; it will show the true position of Robert's 1794 land grant; and it will review new research into his involvement in the Frontier War with the Aborigines pre-1800.

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