Some years ago, I visited a number of abandoned Aboriginal camps and noticed that most had a similar range of useful and edible plants. When I asked local Aboriginal peoples about my observations, they told me their ancestors had brought the plants there. I heard similar assertions about flora at the Bunya Mountains. I assumed medicinal plants grew there because of environmental conditions, but a couple of elders explained to me that the plants were introduced by Aboriginal visitors from different regions. I was amazed by their certainty. These elders knew others viewed their people as hunter-gatherers but nonetheless they did not qualify their response.
For many Aboriginal families I know, Bruce Pascoe's recent book, Dark Emu Black Seeds is a welcome recognition of what they have been telling us all along: that their peoples lived more settled lives than we recognise. ‘If we look at the evidence,’ Pascoe explains, ‘Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity’(2014: 129). For some, such a history may seem impossibly inclusive or even revolutionary. But it continues the work of many others, including Harry Allen and Bill Gammage, who have been arguing for years (and, in Harry's case, for decades) that Aboriginal people were farmers. Of course, this practice was different from the way we farm today, but it was farming nonetheless.
Recognising this difference in method and approach is important. People only notice what they are looking for, and they can be blind to things that fail to fit their expectations. Given that Aboriginal Australia was isolated for 60,000 years, we should not expect such a world — with its unique flora, fauna and environment — to reveal markers of Western agriculture, even if it contains its own complexities. Pascoe's book helps us to grow the ‘eyes’ to see this difference. In my own journeys with Aboriginal peoples, I have continually been surprised at the subtly of their technologies: slight marks on a tree, a few stones shifted here or there — ‘invisible’ signs to the untrained eye, but indicators of masterful land management.
Pascoe's style in Dark Emu Black Seeds is relaxed and chatty, and the book wears its scholarly credentials lightly. Pascoe does not take us on the all too common academic rollercoaster of debunking other theories and counter-theories, or nit-picking at details that often characterise polemical histories of Aboriginal Australia. He adeptly uses the sources, the science and family memories to make his point, although his rhetoric may bristle up against some readers and others may find his conclusions too ambitious. But the book's purpose is not to convert every sceptic. Rather, it offers a vision of Aboriginal Australia that might assist Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to grow closer to each other, and to the continent on which they reside.