We loved Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu” story - until we had doubts that maybe it was mostly just that - a “story”.
As we checked Mr Pascoe’s text, and compared it to his quoted “original” references and what he was saying in his lectures, we started to find some errors. These finds were small ones at first, which can be forgiven in any academic work, but then larger errors appeared and, most worryingly, some even appeared to be possibly wilful manipulations, additions or omissions to slant the narrative and bolster his argument. Could this be?
We have assembled here, as a number of blog-posts, the results of our review and critique of Dark Emu - Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture and we will let the reader be the judge!
The Case of the Creeping Boundary!
One of Mr Pascoe’s most admired references with regard to evidence of an “Aboriginal agricultural economy” is Norman Tindale, the Australian (Mr Pascoe confusingly sometimes refers to him as being American in his lectures) anthropologist, who Mr Pascoe claims, “was able to plot Indigenous grain areas from which the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) was able to construct a map.”
However, when we look at the map presented in Mr Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu (Figure 1 below), it appears have been ‘re-drawn’ to expand the boundaries of the “Aboriginal grain belt” (after Tindale 1974), when compared to the RIRDC map (Figure 2). This RIRDC map is identical to Tindale’s original 1974 map (Figure 3), both of which clearly show a much more limited range for “Tindale’s Arc”, the grasslands where Aborigines had a high reliance on grass seeds in their diet. We have included copies of the relevant pages of Dark Emu, the RIRDC report and Tindale’s 1974 book, Australian Tribes of Australia below as evidence.
One might ask why anyone would need to attempt to ‘fudge’ the boundaries of ‘Tindale’s Arc’? Why didn’t Mr Pascoe just copy accurately the RIRDC or Tindale’s map?
Unless Mr Pascoe can offer a reason, it does appear that he may have re-drawn an expanded, Aboriginal “grain-belt” boundary to incorporate the highly productive grain areas, developed by modern Australian farmers, as well. We believe it is unjustified to alter the data of Tindale and the RIRDC to make the Aboriginal “grain-belt” look much larger than either of these two authorities claimed.
Similarly, Mr Pascoe only considers the relative areas of the Aboriginal and Modern “grain-belts”, not their productivity. It has been estimated (Ref 1) that an Aboriginal woman could produce around one 280gram seed cake a day. Assuming 365 days per year and say, half the pre-colonial, Aboriginal population of 300,000 were women capable of producing seed cakes, then some 15,000 tonnes per year of grain-seeds may have been harvested, per year, across Mr Pascoe’s Aboriginal “grain-belt”. This compares to Australia’s farmers of today producing some two thousand times more, or 30 million tonnes, of grain annually (See Figure 4).
Mr Pascoe’s ‘re-drawn’ “Tindale’s Arc” is also featured in the new school-children’s version of Young Dark Emu. The area depicted where “grain has been harvested since white settlement” is also shown to be smaller than it is in reality.
Reference 1 : Cane, S., First Footprints, Allen & Unwin, 2013, p 178.