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Published October 9th 2016
A surprising glimpse of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australia
Have you ever wondered how Aboriginal people survived in the harsh Australian landscape for over 60 000 years before European contact? If you believe our history books you would think they sustained themselves as nomadic hunter-gatherers, living off a handful of berries and seeds here and the occasionally hunted kangaroo there. If this seems a little simplistic or implausible to you, you're not alone.
In his book Dark Emu Black Seeds, Bruce Pascoe questions the notion of pre-European Aboriginal Australia as a simplistic hunter-gatherer society and argues that the economy and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been grossly undervalued.
In his book, Pascoe looks at the following areas of pre-colonial Aboriginal life - Agriculture, Aquaculture, Population and Housing, Storage and Preservation, Fire and The Heavens, Language and the Law. He also argues for an agricultural revolution in Australia and the final chapter looks at accepting history and creating the future.
To get a glimpse of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australia Pascoe looks at the primary sources upon which Australia's idea of history is based, i.e. the journals and diaries of explorers and colonists. By re-examining these sources, without the prejudices of the 18th and 19th century colonisers, Pascoe finds some fascinating early observations that have been allowed to slip from view and we begin to see a much different picture than what our history books tell us.
In these early records, Pascoe has found evidence that the Australian landscape had a "cultivated appearance" according to many colonists and explorers in different parts of the country. There is written evidence to suggest that Aboriginal people cultivated yams and tubers in coastal areas and grains through a vast area of central Australia.
For example, surveyor and explorer Major Thomas Mitchell describes seeing grass pulled and piled in hayricks which extended for miles. Similarly, Charles Sturt records seeing "grassy plains spreading out like a boundless stubble field, the grass being of the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year...large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks".
Surely this is strong evidence of Aboriginal agriculture. In fact, anthropologist Norman Tindale found so much evidence of Aboriginal grain harvests that he was able to compile a map of the indigenous grain belt, the area of which was more than twice the size of the current Australian wheat belt.
Furthermore in NSW and the Northern Territory grindstones have been found which were used to grind seeds into flour more than 30 000 years ago, making Aboriginal people the world's oldest bakers, Pascoe argues.
In contrast to what we have always been taught about Aboriginal people leading largely nomadic lives, the evidence of fixed housing and villages found in explorers journals is vast and surprising. Houses were built with a variety of materials including grass, mud and stone to suit different climates.
In 1839 Major Thomas Mitchell describes the houses and villages that he sees, "the buildings were of very large dimensions and capable of containing at least 40 persons and were of superior construction", in a village with a population of over 1000 people.
Similarly explorer George Grey described what he saw in Western Australia in 1839 on the Gascoyne River, such as houses and "fixed places of residence" and the cultivation of yams.
One of the most astonishing stories retold by Pascoe is that of explorer Charles Sturt and his expedition in 1844 to find the "inland sea" through the inhospitable terrain of what was to become known as Sturt's Stony Desert. As his party struggled to survive in the extreme heat, he describes coming upon a group of 300-400 "natives" near Cooper's Creek. Luckily for Sturt's party they were treated with "genuine hospitality". They were brought water for themselves and their horses to drink, and food to eat, notably "roast duck and some cake." They were also given firewood and a large new hut to sleep in.
Sturt comes across numerous native huts on his expeditions, many of which he describes as being substantially built. Of the village at Cooper's Creek he says the huts "were made of strong boughs with a thick coating of clay over leaves and grass. They were entirely impervious to wind and rain, and were really comfortable, being evidently erections of a permanent kind to which the inhabitants frequently returned. Where there were villages these huts were built in rows, the front of one hut being at the back of the other, and it appeared to be a singular but universal custom to erect a smaller hut at no great distance from the large ones, but we were unable to detect for what purpose they were made, unless it was to deposit their seeds; as they were too small even for children to inhabit". In the inhospitable interior of the continent, Aboriginal people were not merely surviving, but they were thriving.
In other areas of the country, Aboriginal people used sophisticated technologies such as channels, traps and nets for fishing in lakes and rivers. In terms of storage and preservation of food Pascoe identifies a number of methods Aboriginal people used to stockpile food, thus preserving their surplus. Fire was used to manage the landscape, for regeneration and for seed germination.
So why, with all of this evidence, do our history books tell us that Aboriginal Australians lived in a primitive hunter-gatherer society, foraging and hunting for food, with no agricultural methods or permanent dwellings?
It's not difficult to figure out why. The colonists wanted the land for themselves and it suited them to describe the land as "terra nullius". Thus Aboriginal buildings were destroyed to make way for the colonists while European livestock ate and trampled Aboriginal crops all the while compacting the soil.
In the final chapters, Pascoe suggests the benefits Australia would see from growing indigenous crops and grazing indigenous animals which are more suitable to our climate and less damaging to the environment.
Furthermore, Pascoe writes "the start of the journey towards equality for Aboriginal people is to acknowledge that Aboriginals did build houses, did cultivate crops and were not merely hunter-gatherers."
Dark Emu: Black Seedswon the Book of the Year at the 2016 NSW Premier's Literary Awards and was also joint winner of the Indigenous Writing Prize. It is not hard to see why - Dark Emu: Black Seeds is a surprising, fascinating and absolutely compelling glimpse of pre-colonial Aboriginal life in Australia. I think it should be essential reading for all Australians.
Bruce Pascoe has had a varied career as a teacher, farmer, fisherman, barman, fencing contractor, lecturer, Aboriginal language researcher, archaeological site worker and editor. He is the author of many books, including Fog a Dox.
Dark Emu: Black Seeds is available to order from your local bookstore.