Dark Emu: An eye-opener

Posted: February 3, 2021 in Uncategorized
Clochan on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. Photo: Rob Douglas

I commence this post by expressing my deepest thanks to the First Nations people of the continent in which I live that we now call Australia.

I have long respected these people and have been brought up to recognise that before Europeans arrived in this country, there was already in existence a sophisticated culture.

But somehow the prevailing attitudes and assumptions over the years have hindered me and, dare I say it, most of my fellow Australians, from honouring the achievements of those who shaped this land over many tens of thousand years.

My wife and I visited Ireland a couple of years ago and had the privilege of seeing the Beehive houses, or clochan, on the Dingle Peninsula that are believed to date back to the 8th or even 12th century. So I was fascinated to read about something that was perhaps similar in Australia. The source of this revelation was Bruce Pascoe’s fascinating book, “Dark Emu”.

“Elizabeth Williams quotes a graphic account from William Thomas, an Aboriginal Protector, which provides a neat summary of the scale and sophistication of Aboriginal housing, but also why so few people saw it after the first visits of Europeans: [The] first settlers found a regular aboriginal settlement. This settlement was about 50 miles NE of Port Fairy. There was on the banks of the creek between 20 and 30 huts of the form of a beehive, some of them capable of holding a dozen people.” (from “Dark Emu, New Edition” by Bruce Pascoe)

Pascoe has carefully investigated information that is readily available about what early European settlers recorded having seen on their first sojourns into Australian countryside, highlighting stories about agriculture, aquaculture and housing that debunk theories about an uninhabited and unsophisticated land. He argues that the paucity of knowledge that we have of these discoveries is based on an unwillingness by early settlers to accept that a sophisticated society could possibly exist outside of European civilisation.

“On seeing houses built to accommodate forty people in groups of fifty or more, both explorers resort to words such as ‘huts’ or ‘hovels’ to describe buildings that in rural Ireland would have been called croft houses.” (from “Dark Emu, New Edition” by Bruce Pascoe)

The use of language in this way has prevailed over many years to maintain cultural supremacy, according to Pascoe. He argues that the term “hunter-gather” is a lie that has been maintained to prove that western methods of agriculture were superior to methods that had proved successful and sustainable for thousands of years.

“Dark Emu” explains in detail some of the agricultural practices that were undertaken prior to white settlement and that were observed by early explorers, and the way in which these practices were quickly suspended as fences were constructed, and sheep, cattle and wheat were introduced. Pascoe speaks about the link that existed between the original inhabitants and the environment, and the care that was taken to maintain the sustainability of food sources. But he takes his argument further by suggesting that a sustainable future for agriculture in Australia would benefit from studying native vegetation and crops, along with agricultural methods that had served this country well long before the arrival of introduced animals and crops.

Language was only referred to briefly by Pascoe, but my father spent a lifetime studying indigenous languages across Australia and was convinced that he was dealing with high levels of sophistication. While these languages were originally unwritten, the process of analysing languages and writing grammars and dictionaries, proved that this was not a primitive people. My father’s experiences with language convinced me that First Nations people were far more advanced than popular narrative suggested, but Pascoe’s book has opened some new doors.

Views of cultural superiority, fuelled by prevailing Darwinistic philosophy, led the first white inhabitants of Australia to dismiss an existing culture and, in some cases to deliberately cover up the evidence before them that they were breaking and entering, without invitation, someone’s well organised home. This has been maintained over the past 230 years and still exists as we argue that indigenous people are better off as a result of colonisation.

I am immensely thankful to Bruce Pascoe for having put in writing what has been hidden for far too long, and it has caused me to be immensely thankful to those people who carefully and wisely managed this land long before white people arrived. It is time we expressed that thanks by honouring our predecessors through a thorough investigation into the methods that were adopted to achieve sustainability. As Pascoe puts it:

“In the excision of unpalatable parts of our history (the illegal occupation of land and the slaughter of the occupants, for instance), we have lost elements we never knew existed. Those elements — such as the crops, houses, irrigation systems, and fisheries — may hold keys to future prosperity.” (from “Dark Emu, New Edition” by Bruce Pascoe)

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