The legal fiction of Terra nullius, that the Australia was an empty land before the arrival of Europeans, has always been one of the country’s greatest scandals. In fact the revered, sacred lands had been carefully tended for many thousands of years by a peoples far more sophisticated than European histories and contemporary difficulties have ever revealed. Dark Emus, by Bruce Pascoe, presents a thesis that challenges Australian history. It has won the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for Book of the Year. Using early explorers’ journals and other evidence, Pascoe argued pre-colonial Aboriginal people were not nomadic hunter-gatherers, but had a democracy that ensured peace across a continent which was extensively farmed, skilfully managed and deeply loved. In accepting the award Pascoe said: “Dark Emu talks about the fact that Aboriginal people were the first people in the world to make bread, 15,000 years in advance of the Egyptians and this is something that we could be proud of. We’ve got the oldest art in the world, we’ve got the oldest tool manufacture in the world, these are important facts – we should all share in our pride that this country was a leader in human development.”
Good Reads reviewer Oliver Hudson, giving Dark Emus a five star rating, writes: “Absolute winner! Pascoe presents a pretty culturally challenging argument in well argued, substantiated, and in the end, matter of fact points. Using the early settlers and explorers as evidence to describe what Australia was, and could be, under Indigenous custom, or even ‘the best of’ Indigenous ecological understanding, he weaves a tale of interest and hope. I also think it is a great tribute to the author that the main voice is one of wonder and hope, although there are no doubt major condemnations to be levelled at the colonisers. Pascoe doesn’t shy from those condemnations, but he doesn’t make that the main message of the book. There is a strong historical empathy for the explorers, and a keen-eyed understanding of their mores and blind-spots (often self-inflicted while trying to justify the taking of land) that allows the book to move into the more fertile soil of possibility.”
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The underestimation of Indigenous achievement was a deliberate tactic of British colonialism.
The importance of examining this material is to dissuade a common Australian perception that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people built nothing more complex than a piece of bark leaning on a stick.
While we continue to think of Aboriginal people having no construction skills it is easier to dismiss Aboriginal attachment to land.
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.
Linguist Terry Crowley admits that Australian languages are probably 40,000 to 60,000 years old, but even at 10,000 years they would be older than most other world languages.
Schoolchildren are taught that witchetty grubs were a major food source almost as if there is a deliberate attempt by educationalists to emphasise the gross and primitive. Imagine, instead, re-educating the nation and utilising the two major crops of Australia: yams (as well as other root vegetables) and grains.
Human survival on a healthy planet is not a soft liberal pipe dream; it is sound global management and the deepest of religious impulses.
Encouraging full participation of Aboriginal people is not a simple task of handing out fluorescent vests to work in a billionaire’s mine but requires a conversation with Aboriginal people about the future of the country.