Anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe (Image: Private Media)

Bruce Pascoe called his book Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of Agriculture. It might as well have been called “Experts? Whadda they know?”

The idea of Pascoe v the academic establishment has become the driving narrative of Dark Emu. It was a matter of time before the empire of knowledge came down on the book’s apparent problems with scholarship, which is exactly what has happened with the publication of Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, a point-by-point critique by anthropologist Professor Peter Sutton and archaeologist Dr Keryn Walshe.

The renegade

Pascoe’s narrative of himself as the renegade who the establishment must shut down is one he pushes in Dark Emu and elsewhere.  

In a profile in The Australian, Pascoe spoke of the moment Dark Emu catalysed for him. By his telling, it went back eight or nine years. Pascoe had been working on his children’s fiction book Fog a Dox. More and more he had begun voicing his thesis that ­Australians had been duped by their history books into the belief that Aboriginal people were ­nothing more than spear-throwing nomads before the arrival of white colonisers.

Pascoe said he then received an invitation to travel to Canberra for a meeting with several academics, adding the detail that he made the four-hour trip from his East Gippsland home property in his “second-hand ute” (a point of branding which appears in many a Pascoe story).

Once in Canberra he was (apparently) politely but firmly put in his place. 

“When I left that meeting, I got in my old beaten-up ute, and I was furious,” he said. From there he reportedly drove straight to a second-hand bookstore and plonked down $8 for a copy of the journals of 19th-century explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell, which he opened then and there in the ute. The rest is history, as they say. Explorers’ accounts such as Mitchell’s have formed the basis of Dark Emu‘s eye-opening revelations and eye-popping success.

Nine years on from that Canberra showdown, Pascoe was able to remember the stark warning he was given by the scholars: “Look, we don’t want you talking to our students about this stuff, because it’s wrong, it didn’t ­happen,” he recalled, the words still ringing in his ears. “‘You’re talking about agriculture, but that didn’t happen. Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers.’”

It was the classic movie moment, the turning point when they tried to silence the little guy from saying what he knew because he was a threat to the establishment. Pascoe was, reportedly, hazy on the names of those who confronted him.

There are refrains of this throughout Dark Emu, in service of Pascoe’s thesis that virtually Australia’s entire body of historians, anthropologists and archaeologists has distorted Aboriginal history and failed to find the truth.

“Australian scholarship has a variety of routes towards demeaning the first possessors of the soil,” Pascoe wrote in Dark Emu. He referred to the “assumption of Indigenous inferiority shackling theory to ideology”.

A matter of facts

Pascoe’s is a seductive tale, offering a different way of seeing the past so that we can start anew with real understanding and respect. Who could argue with that? 

Questions have been raised about Pascoe’s facts in the years before Sutton and his co-author Walshe came along. 

At the beginning of 2020, Melbourne lawyer Russell Marks, who has worked in Aboriginal justice, wrote in The Monthly that “throughout Dark Emu, Pascoe regularly exaggerates and embellishes”:

One example: he quotes Thomas Mitchell’s description of large, circular, chimneyed huts Mitchell observed near Mount Arapiles, in western Victoria, on July 26, 1836, but leaves out [Mitchell’s accompanying] words, ‘which were of a very different construction from those of the Aborigines in general’.

In 2019, the book Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu alleged “that Pascoe omits, distorts or mischaracterises important information to such an extent that, as purported history, Dark Emu is worthless”. The book’s author, Peter O’Brien, while not an academic, considered himself to be an expert on two of the main historical sources referenced in Dark Emu: the diaries and journals of early Australian explorers Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell. However, the fact that the book was published by the right-wing Quadrant Books meant it was destined to die in a ditch in the culture wars.

Far from damaging Dark Emu, criticisms from conservative sources such as Quadrant, the website “Dark Emu Exposed”, and the work of Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt, only served to make Pascoe stronger.

Sutton and Walshe, though, cannot be dismissed as the usual right-wing suspects. In nearly 300 pages of fact-checking, they call Pascoe to account in an unaccustomed way. With Pascoe’s dual identity as a writer of fiction and of non-fiction he has operated in a space between the two worlds, as the storyteller.

He said as much in the introduction to his book. “In Dark Emu my aim is to give rise to the possibility of an alternative view of pre-colonial Aboriginal society.” That leaves plenty of room to slip and slide if facts alone are your measure.

‘Indefensible academically’

Sutton in particular is a clear and present danger to the Pascoe enterprise. The two have uncannily similar beginnings. Sutton was born into a postwar working-class home in Melbourne, as was Pascoe. Sutton was born in 1946, Pascoe in 1947. 

But that’s where it ends. Sutton has been in the business for 50 years. He holds a doctorate in anthropology and an honours degree in linguistics, based on fieldwork with Aboriginal people. He calculates that he has lived five years of his life with Aboriginal families in remote Australia. He has been taken as a son by three men of different groups and with that expected to observe Indigenous cultural practices.

“Kinship is for life, and creates lifelong relationships which carry great responsibility,” he told Crikey, “It is far more powerful in traditional life than friendship.” Of the three Indigenous languages Sutton speaks, he is the last remaining speaker of two. 

Sutton worked with Wik people from 1976, writing the anthropological report used as evidence in the historic Wik native title case which went to the High Court in 1996 and changed the law on native title in Australia. He has acted as an expert anthropologist for 87 land claims.

Sutton says he was handed Pascoe’s book in 2016 but was too busy working on native titles cases to look at it at the time. “It is indefensible academically,” he said. “I thought it would die a natural death.” He read it only when Dark Emu was taking off and assuming a place as an authoritative work on Australia’s history.

Sutton told Crikey that he approached his analysis of Dark Emu in the same spirit as an expert witness in court. He would check assertions forensically and fairly. If Pascoe was right he would acknowledge it. If not he would document it.

In just one of several pages of brutal assessment Sutton finds Pascoe guilty of multiple deceptions. He asserts that Pascoe provides misleading evidence, quotes selectively, makes a statement that is “pure fiction” and omits important information which qualifies one of Pascoe’s revelations.

He makes the case that Pascoe mistakenly projects his own information gap as a child of the 1950s on to all Australia. Pascoe claimed there is in the popular imagination “a brutish description of Aboriginals that Australian history insists we accept”. 

Yet, Sutton asks: “Who are these ogres? Isolated pub racists? So-called culture warriors? Australian history writing, including TV versions of it, moved way beyond that colonial era delusion long ago.”

Walshe has her own list of falsities, including Pascoe’s claim that Aboriginal antiquity stretches back 120,000 years. “It borders on the absurd,” she told Crikey. Another was Pascoe’s claim of there being an Aboriginal settlement of 10,000 people in western Victoria.

‘A false idea of ancestry

The authors highlight the “disturbing” social evolutionist philosophy which underpins Dark Emu‘s approach which, they say, measures Indigenous achievement against a European idea of advancement, rather than appreciating Indigenous hunter-gatherer achievements on their own terms. 

That criticism has been supported by Dr Hannah McGlade. McGlade, a Noongar woman and human rights advocate, “grew up Noongar” with family connections in the Kimberley and has an extensive background in Indigenous affairs. McGlade has little time for Pascoe or his version of Aboriginal history.

“I find [Sutton and Walshe’s] analysis credible and persuasive,” she told Crikey.

“There is nothing in Pascoe’s book that resonates. To me it doesn’t reflect an Aboriginal world view. Many years ago I challenged the racist senator Ross Lightfoot who racially vilified Aboriginal people when he opposed the introduction of Aboriginal studies in WA primary schools. According to him we were ‘primitive’ people without proper culture, his language was very offensive.

“I agree with Sutton that Bruce Pascoe has bought into this offensive lie, promoted it once again, although many people have understood, known for a very long time, the wisdom of traditional Aboriginal cultures and rejected the racism inherent in Darwinism that underpinned the racist fiction of terra nullius and Aboriginal dispossession.”

McGlade said the new critique of Dark Emu had ignited a “fiery” debate in online discussion sites over the value of Pascoe’s work.

“One problem for me is that it is giving Aboriginal kids a false idea of their ancestry and that shouldn’t happen,” she said. She also supported Sutton’s recommendation that the children’s version, Young Dark Emu, be corrected.