Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate


When I found about the existence of this book, I was filled with righteous indignation. Who were these people trying to tear down Bruce Pascoe's work? How dare they provide an excuse for gleeful racists to cry, see, I told you it was all rubbish?

But after reading Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, I've changed my mind. Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe are experts, academic anthropologists who know their subject inside out and have spent years researching and learning from First Nations people. It does seem that perhaps Bruce Pascoe has exaggerated, over-generalised and perhaps valorised a Western ideal of agricultural 'progress' at the expense of valuing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as a rich, balanced and sustainable achievement in its own right.

Sutton and Walshe are at pains to point out that some of the facts Pascoe highlights as 'new discoveries' have been known in the field of anthropology for decades; however, I think they do underestimate how long it takes for this 'common knowledge' to filter through to the general public. I think they overestimate how much most of us learned about Indigenous culture at school. I don't think they realise the depth of ignorance of the ordinary, non-academic person, and they don't fully appreciate what I believe is the most important secret to Dark Emu's outstanding success: the hunger for more knowledge about, and appreciation for, the ancient traditions of Aboriginal Australia, not via academic textbooks or scholarly articles, but in a gripping, simple to understand narrative, which is what Dark Emu achieved.

It would be a wonderful outcome if Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? helps to continue the conversation about Australia's history and present that has been sparked by Dark Emu, and leads to a greater depth of knowledge and curiosity. It would be a shame if this careful, nuanced book becomes co-opted into the mindless shouting of the culture wars.

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