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The Great Divide

The debate about Dark Emu is trapped in a centuries-old European worldview, says the author of The Biggest Estate on Earth

Bill Gammage 20 July 2021 1836 words

An Aboriginal settlement depicted in Francois Péron’s account of Nicolas-Thomas Baudin’s 1800–04 expedition, Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes (1807–16).


Our European ancestors locked us in a madhouse. To explain why their society was technologically more complex than others, they came up with what I call the Great Divide — the separation of the world’s peoples into farmers or hunter-gatherers. Anchored by their crops, farmers stayed put; hunter-gatherers didn’t. So the Divide is also a division between sedentism and mobility.

In time exceptions emerged: northwest American hunter-gatherers stayed put, sub-Arctic reindeer herders spend months on the move; Scottish farmers burn heather to lure grouse hunter-gatherer style; Aborigines used practices associated with farming. Yet the Divide has value, and the idea sticks.

The madhouse was built when the Divide was infected by two calamitous notions: Civilisation, and Race. Both compare. To think of Civilisation is to invent an opposite, barbarism; to think of Race you need more than one. The Divide became a ladder of humanity, civilised farmers above, barbarous hunter-gatherers below.

For decades researchers have attempted to demolish this hierarchy, by demonstrating the skill and success of hunter-gatherers, or by revealing the barbarity of farmer colonialism. But in the big world the Divide remains hierarchical — less overt no doubt, but solidly entrenched. After talking publicly about 1788 land management, I might hear statements like “If they were in charge, nothing would’ve happened here in the last 200 years,” or be asked “Are you saying we should go back to 1788?” or, more innocently, “How can we improve our treatment of Aboriginal people?”

In specialist disciplines where jargon and theory are eminent, many academics simply don’t get such mindsets. They puzzle over why Dark Emu is so popular. At the recent Canberra launch of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers, several speakers tackled this puzzle, pointing to factors including Pascoe’s forthright prose, and the moral guilt non-Aborigines might feel as the horrors of the frontier, the long institutionalisation of Aboriginal people, and the removal of children are exposed.

Not one explanation offered by the speakers was straightforward or aimed at a wider public; all were infused with possibles and alternatives. This was made clear when a tour operator asked how Aborigines could have cleared the grasslands on Victoria’s Tower Hill, as shown in von Guérard’s painting, if they walked about all the time? No answer said straight out that people didn’t walk about all the time, that they managed Tower Hill’s plants in due season yet still travelled purposefully to care for their country. The tour operator left early, not happy I thought.

Who are Pascoe’s critics talking to? They are alarmed by what the public is being led to think, by what might be taught in schools, by how much good research is overlooked. Their remedy is to talk to each other.

The gap can be bridged. History is the most open of disciplines, the readiest to ignore jargon and theory, though some historians use too much of both. History is so open that other academics seem to think they don’t need to be trained in it. Yet, thanks largely to Henry Reynolds’s work, historians have demolished the old myths of a peaceful and beneficent frontier and a generous and appropriate treatment of Aboriginal people. If there is a sense of public moral guilt, or of a need to remedy past and present injustices, it is thanks to historians like Reynolds.

How far does Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers bridge the gap? Dark Emu is a history and a polemic; the most balanced response I’ve seen to it is by a historian, Tom Griffiths. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers is a detailed response from an anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton, with two chapters and an appendix by an archaeologist, Keryn Walshe. My health stops me from reading all their book, so I’m obliged to cherrypick.

I began by searching Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers’ index for references under “Gammage” to my The Biggest Estate on Earth, which Pascoe uses extensively. Brief mentions apart, I noted two longer comments by Sutton, plus one for which he has apologised.

Of stone houses at Lake Condah in western Victoria, Sutton quotes my statement that they “could hold about 700 people” and continues: “Estimates of the entire pre-colonial population of Victoria range from 5000 to 15,000. The proposition that most of them lived at Lake Condah, leaving the rest of Victoria mainly uninhabited, is untenable.”

Yet not even Pascoe, with his suggestion of 10,000 people living in the area, proposes that “most” Victorian Aborigines lived at Lake Condah. Sutton and Walshe’s claim makes even less sense if you believe — as Sutton said at the Canberra launch — that Australia’s pre-contact population was between 750,000 and a million and that western Victoria and the lower Murray were among the country’s most densely populated regions.

“Another thing Gammage and Pascoe share,” says Sutton, “is the preferencing of early explorer and settler accounts over the studies of anthropologists and archaeologists, and the reconstruction of vegetation history.” Odd to require historians to prefer the evidence of people who weren’t there over people who were, especially as Sutton later criticises me for doing exactly that: “Gammage… thus claims to know more than [Augustus] Gregory about what people were doing on the west coast of Western Australia prior to 1882.”

This remark stems from Gregory’s observation that “they invariably re-insert the head of the yams so as to be sure of a future crop, but beyond this they do absolutely nothing which may be regarded as a tentative in the direction of cultivating plants.” Sutton objects because I put this among “wrong” statements.

History 101 on classing evidence. Gregory saw people re-planting yam tops: that statement is worth reporting. But how could he know that people did “absolutely nothing” else? Passing by, he could not know anything of an annual yam cycle. And other evidence I quote shows that people did do more than replant tops — they tilled the soil, and in Western Australia transplanted yams. That’s where I think Gregory is “wrong.”

So I approach both Dark Emu and Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers cautiously. Pascoe and I are both dissatisfied by the Great Divide but disagree on some fundamentals. He thinks people were farmers in 1788. I don’t — I think some farmed but none depended on it. He thinks people have been here 120,000 years or more; the earliest possible date I know of is 65,000 years.

Pascoe’s date is apparently from Gurdip Singh’s work on Lake George sediments. In them Singh saw a sudden increase in charcoal between 120,000 and 130,000 years ago, and suggested Aboriginal fire as a possible cause. If so, not 1788-style fire. It burnt cool, leaving little ash, much like a stubble fire today. A lot of charcoal suggests a fuel build-up in the absence of Aboriginal fire, not the reverse. Some researchers still make this mistake. More probably Singh meant clearing fires by new arrivals: that’s conceivable, but less likely than lightning strikes in a drought, and not enough to claim proof of human activity.

On the other hand, Sutton accuses Pascoe of ranking hunter-gatherers below farmers on a ladder of humanity, of calling them “mere” hunter-gatherers. The first sourced example I came across stated:

Pascoe said… “Dark Emu… exploded the myth that Aboriginal people were mere hunters and gatherers”… Pascoe’s message is built on a simple distinction between what he calls “mere” hunter-gatherers… and farmers; or between “mere” hunting and gathering… and agriculture.

Sutton thinks Pascoe is endorsing “mere” rather than exploding it. He elaborates on this misunderstanding several times, for example: “It is almost as if the more European the Old People can be made to seem, the better… This is Dark Emu’s most fundamental flaw.” Extraordinary. Here and elsewhere, the more charitable interpretation is that Pascoe is being ironic. And he ought to be able to say that he thinks people were farmers without being called a racist. The madhouse echoes.

Sutton says Pascoe omits words to give a more agricultural feel to quotes from explorers’ journals. This is convincing on Sturt but not on Mitchell. Pascoe quotes Mitchell on finding acres of seed grass piled into hayricks, but Sutton points out that Pascoe omits Mitchell’s words, “for some purpose connected with the allurement of birds or animals.” History 101: how could Mitchell know that? He is speculating, as Sutton says, but Sutton goes on to say Pascoe deliberately omits the words to convey an impression of Aboriginal agriculture.

In turn Sutton omits words suggestive of farming from this quote. Mitchell continues, “All of the grass was of one kind, a new species of Panicum [millet]… not a spike of it was left in the soil, over the whole of the ground.” A farmer might have suspected that one grass over so great an area meant a crop, and so did Mitchell, eventually. On the Macquarie in February 1846 a squatter told him that panicum “was called by the natives ‘coolly,’ and… the gins gather it in great quantities, and pound the seeds between stones with water, forming a kind of paste or bread.” A month later he noted that panicum:

seemed to predominate, a grass whereof the seed (“Cooly”) is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that had been pulled expressly for the purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest.

“Through this grass only… as far as the eye could reach”: this was a clean crop on overflow land where each flush drops debris, so surely it was weeded.

So both Pascoe and Sutton leave out words that don’t suit. Me too, probably. On the words Pascoe leaves in, I think he goes too far; on the words Sutton leaves in, I think he protests too much, too angrily. Pascoe enlarges minds; Sutton corrects errors and exaggerated inferences. Pascoe has reached 250,000 readers, or buyers, illuminating for many the wonders of 1788; Sutton and Walshe refuse to let falsehood pass uncorrected. Few know of Pascoe’s earlier fiction writing, though it helps explain Dark Emu, and few know of Sutton’s invaluable work on language and native title — to preserve or restore their language is the greatest gift a researcher can give a disrupted people. Both contribute, both are at odds. Ships pass in broad daylight.

What of our children? What will they be told? For them this is not just whitefella bisnis. This is their heritage, this will shape what they think about their country and people. The present brawl won’t do. We must move on. Perhaps Pascoe and Sutton should write a school text together, Pascoe to restrain his claims, Sutton to curb his possibles and alternatives, both to learn from Aboriginal elders how to break down the madhouse. What an Australia that would be. •

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Never again? Journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age protesting against job cuts outside Parliament House in Canberra on 8 May 2017. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Never again? Journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age protesting against job cuts outside Parliament House in Canberra on 8 May 2017. Lukas Coch/AAP Image