Dark Emu’s Critics

Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe (Melbourne University Press, 2021)

By the time you read this you may well have browsed one of several published reviews of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate.  Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? elicited strong reactions, which I have analysed elsewhere.1 Similarly, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? has drawn vehement comment from supporters and detractors. The intellectual currents that inform these positions may not be familiar to all. This review provides some of the background to Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? and takes the view that there is more to be said about the arguments of Pascoe than is contained in this book.

Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is a critique of the claims in Dark Emu that Aboriginal society was agricultural, or at least on the threshold of agriculture, at the time European colonists arrived in Australia in the late eighteenth century. Across thirteen chapters, anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe provide a detailed examination of more than a century of anthropological and archaeological research on Aboriginal societies. The book begins by enumerating the aspects of the debate Dark Emu kicked off when it was first published: the contentious argument that the spiritual world determines Aboriginal relationships to land and resources; the problematic view that not having a word for agricultural practices or implements means they must not exist for Aboriginal people; Aboriginal use of fire; Pascoe’s use of the social evolutionism model; debates about agriculture; the significance of what Aboriginal people wore; whether they farmed or trapped fish and other aquatic organisms; the evidence for and against permanent and transient dwellings; mobility and residing in a single place; examination of Pascoe’s use of explorer records: how to think about stone implements: and how best to understand stone circles and ‘smoking’ trees. The first ten chapters were written by Sutton, chapters eleven and twelve are by Walshe, and the concluding thirteenth chapter seems to have been written by Sutton. Two separate appendices on when humans first arrived on the Australian continent, and material from the accounts of William Buckley, who lived with Central Victorian Aboriginal people for thirty-two years in the early 1800s, are written by Walshe and Sutton, respectively.

Sutton and Walshe find Pascoe’s reliance on and often incomplete citing of explorer and colonist journals, and on the scholarly works of Rupert Gerritsen (Australia and the Origins of Agriculture, 2008) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth, 2011), to lack the methodological and theoretical sophistication of written accounts produced by formally trained social scientists and archaeologists. Moreover, Sutton and Walshe, and Sutton in particular, argue that there is no evidence that would allow Aborigines to be characterised as farmers, instead making the argument that Aboriginal people were so good at hunter-gathering that they were, in Sutton’s words, hunter-gatherers ‘plus’. 

The term ‘hunter-gatherer’ was historically used as part of a Western model of social evolutionary development. This history complicates the term in the books of Sutton and Walsh and Pascoe. In the historical model, hunter-gathering, or foraging, is a primitive mode of living in contrast to agriculture or farming, which is considered more advanced. Despite the obvious critiques that might be made of this model, it lingers in popular consciousness. Pascoe uses this model to ask Australians to shift their thinking about the sophistication of Aboriginal people by arguing that they were far more modern in the ways they once lived than has been recognised. Sutton and Walshe are critical of this value-laden model; however, they also embrace it. Pascoe’s sin, from their point of view, is not only that he has embraced a problematic model but also that he has miscategorised Aboriginal people within it. Aboriginal people, according to Sutton, fall into the best of these problematic categories: his ‘hunter-gatherer plus’. 

The credentials of Sutton and Walshe are substantial. By Sutton’s account in this book, he has provided expert evidence in eighty-seven Aboriginal land claims and written numerous books and articles on aspects of Aboriginal social and cultural life. Walshe has a substantial archaeological career in field archaeology and museum work. One should expect, then, a book of great scholarly rigour, which largely it is. Where it is not, it is telling. Given the high standards the authors set themselves, and their criticism that Pascoe is at best an amateur of good intent, there is no wriggle room for either author and their claims. Walshe’s chapters are strong. Unless there is uncited research that directly contradicts her argument that Pascoe is wrong to claim that Bogan picks, cylcons and knives are stone tools primarily used for agricultural purposes, her arguments stand. Sutton’s chapters are less straightforward to recommend. This requires discussion of anthropology, knowledge making, and the academy.  

Prior to the 1960s, many of the ethnographers Sutton cites were not particularly interested in using Western subsistence classifications to categorise Aboriginal people as hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists. The marriage of ecology and evolutionary ideas that generated these classifications had not been developed in a way that anthropologists found useful. But from the mid-1960s onwards, anthropologists in Australia became particularly interested in these categories, stimulating a long debate over the question of whether the environment determined the shape of Aboriginal social life or whether there were other factors that needed to be taken into account. These classifications enabled anthropologists to compare Aboriginal people to other world peoples to see whether there were generalisable features that could complete a value-laden picture of where societies sat in a social hierarchy. Sutton took part in these debates during the late 1970s and early 1980s, drawing on his research in Cape York. His views tended to fall in the camp of those who drew a loose link, if any at all, between environmental features and the shape of Aboriginal social and cultural life.2 

This helps explain why Sutton sees Aboriginal people in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? as having an immutable conservative constraint that prevented them changing from hunter-gatherer to agricultural ways of living. He states this early in the book:

…the Old People did not see any necessity to go beyond their existing environmental modifications, given their deep commitment to the maintenance of fertility through engagement with the spiritual powers left for them by the Dreaming.

For Sutton, the cosmology that places spiritual powers at the centre of world-making—often called the Dreaming—puts an emphasis on Aboriginal people doing the right rituals as passed to them by these powers so that the environment will provide the resources they need to live a good life. Indeed, other anthropologists have noted that those Aboriginal people who have managed to maintain a reasonably close relation to their countries of origin, despite the ongoing impact of colonialism, frequently attribute creative capacity to the Dreaming rather than to their own initiative. According to Sutton, this means that radical social and material change—the sort that would lead to agriculture—was exceptionally difficult for Aboriginal people to achieve because the Dreaming created such a good state of affairs that there was no need for living Aboriginal people to do anything other than what they had been doing from time immemorial. This notion of Aboriginal permanence has been seriously questioned by respected anthropologists Fred Myers and Francesca Merlan.3 Sutton would be aware of this, so it is surprising that he so strongly adheres to this model of innate Dreaming immutability as a substantive reason for why Aboriginal society could not change. 

Sutton’s omission is for two reasons. One seems to be to avoid dealing with material that does not support his description; the other is to promote a conservative view of rural and remote Aboriginal people. That view also appears in his 2001 essay The Politics of Suffering,4 which forms part of his 2009 book of the same title.5 In that essay Sutton argues that many traditional ways of living are ill-suited to the present day and a change of politics was needed to bring Aboriginal people into modern ways of living. Sutton’s work arguably provided the intellectual architecture for the 2007 Northern Territory ‘Emergency Response’ (NTER; the Intervention). Whereas The Politics of Suffering, both essay and book, found a white audience willing to embrace his conservative view of Aboriginal people, Sutton’s promotion of Aboriginal permanence in this book has likely missed the zeitgeist of the contemporary moment. Rather, the popularity of Dark Emu suggests an Australian audience willing to embrace the vision of Aboriginal people as described by Pascoe.

Other researchers have also taken a different view of the supposed inability of Aboriginal people to initiate change. Jon Altman, whose work Sutton cites but makes little of, has worked with the eastern Gunwinggu (now Kuninjku) of north-central Arnhem Land from the late 1970s. He found that the difficulties of living in the bush and the constant work of hunting meat and gathering and processing seasonal foodstuffs motivated Kuninjku to migrate to the small township of Maningrida from the late 1950s. There they were able to gain access to market foods and technology (guns, cars and fishing lines), which eased the burden of living arduously by their own hands when they returned to their ancestral lands in the early 1970s. Importantly, Altman’s research, published in a book paradoxically entitled Hunter-Gatherers Today, showed that Kuninjku ‘are not merely the products, but are also the producers of their social and economic environments’.6 South of Arnhem Land, in the Roper River region, Marcus Barber and Sue Jackson noted that non-human spiritual beings were important to Aboriginal people in their management of hunting and fishing.7 Even so, Barber and Jackson did not go so far as to claim that the success of daily subsistence activities was entirely determined by these spiritual agents. They recognised that scientists trained in orthodox methods of research that turn everyday life into discrete data through counting, measuring and recording specific items can explain Aboriginal social and cultural life only so much, and that paying attention to Aboriginal knowledge systems is an equally valid way for explaining why and how Aboriginal people live the way they do.8 Aboriginal knowledge systems treat everyday practices in a holistic manner, where each aspect is interconnected in such a way that to disrupt one part is to fundamentally disrupt the system that gives all parts their good health. Across Australia, the value of Indigenous knowledge systems is recognised in the many collaborative research projects either driven by Indigenous communities or inclusive of Indigenous researchers and their unique perspectives.

In another telling omission, Sutton does not refer to the relevant research of female researchers on the work of Aboriginal women, work that he would know about. Diane Bell’s body of published research with Kaytej women in Central Australia revealed how women selectively cropped, gathered, prepared and stored food for lean times but is not mentioned by Sutton.9 Indeed, of the fifty-nine Aboriginal mentors Sutton lists in the Acknowledgements as helping his understanding of Aboriginal life, only eleven are women. I can’t help but wonder if that matters and whether some of these debates would have a different hue if Aboriginal women’s voices and work were more carefully attended to.

Sutton states in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? that he has not held a permanent university job, having worked primarily as an applied anthropologist throughout his career. Even so, Sutton is lauded by the academy. He was awarded an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship in 2004–08 and is an elected fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. A two-volume Festschrift by eminent anthropologists and linguists exploring his legacy has recently been published.10 Sutton is remarkable for his breadth of applied experience across Indigenous Australia, and his status is second to few in Australian anthropology. Sutton emphasises the importance of formal training in anthropology, which he states that Pascoe and other early ethnographers lack, and he distinguishes between amateur and academic researchers several times. Through these distinctions Sutton asserts that the contributions of researchers working within academic conventions outweigh the contributions of researchers who work outside academic institutions (Pascoe was not appointed Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture at the University of Melbourne until September 2020). 

All or some of the methods and theories of a researcher such as Pascoe may be shown to be wrong, as when Pascoe incompletely cites an explorer’s journal entry or makes too much of what early Europeans saw to bolster his argument. However, Sutton’s argument, that Dark Emu is not a work of valid scholarship because it does not conform to orthodox scholarly criteria, runs close to intellectual elitism. This is an example of Sutton’s strategy of distinction, where the defence of institutional training and the dismissal of thoughtful others is a protection of the assumed right of scholarly anthropologists to produce authoritative knowledge about Aboriginal people. 

Anthropologists who have lived and worked with Indigenous people for many years are uniquely placed to hold deep understanding about contemporary and near-recent Indigenous social and cultural worlds. Nevertheless, anthropologists are not the only researchers making considered contributions to knowledge about Aboriginal people, and we know it. The growing interest in the holism of Indigenous knowledge systems is a case in point.11 For example, new research has drawn on this knowledge to show the relationship between different species and the role of human-induced fire in landscape management.12 This indicates that there are more interpretations of how Aboriginal people and their ancestors live than the story Sutton tells. Indeed, one wonders if the current attack on anthropology and the social sciences in universities around Australia is in part a response to a certain anthropological hubris that regards its own words as final on the appraisal of Indigenous matters.

An example of this is evidenced in Sutton’s treatment of Aboriginal languages. Sutton says that in the forty-odd dictionaries of Aboriginal languages he has consulted, there are no words for farming activities. According to Sutton, this proves that Aboriginal people did not practise agriculture. Using individual words as evidence is a blunt accountancy instrument. Exactly the same argument was used by Keith Windschuttle in debates about frontier violence and Indigenous dispossession. There he claimed that, as there were no words in Tasmanian Aboriginal languages for ‘property’ or ‘trespass’ as Western legal systems would understand these terms, there could not be a sense that land could be stolen from Aboriginal people.13 The High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision put paid to Windschuttle’s defective argument, instead emphasising the importance of Indigenous laws and customs continuing into the present, rather than words, as the legal basis to recognise native title across Australia.

Despite its problems, Dark Emu has inspired research prepared to ask new questions. Archaeologists working with the Mithika of the Channel Country have uncovered evidence of earthen weirs developed to provide a flood-driven irrigation system to increase plant growth.14 Inspired by the arguments of Pascoe and Gerritsen, whom Sutton also characterises as an amateur, these archaeologists are also exploring whether the production and trade of pituri and pigments contributed to village settlements, of which there is some evidence. 

Dark Emu broke the hold on what can be said about how Aboriginal people once lived across the Australian continent. Pascoe read historical material against the grain, challenging the accepted account that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive hunter-gatherers’. White Australia’s embrace of the book marks a significant cultural turn in Australia, suggesting that there is widespread hunger to learn about Indigenous people’s remarkable ways of life. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is a forceful challenge to Dark Emu. There are clearly problems with Pascoe’s citing, paraphrasing, choice of social evolution theory—which places hunters and gathers lower down the European scale of human development—and tendency to assert that almost every historical source he comes across shows evidence of Aboriginal agriculture. Nevertheless, Pascoe, and the underlying work of Gerritsen, show that a thoughtful person can stimulate new understanding and further exploration. In contrast, Sutton and Walshe apply a rigid view that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers and are unable to change. As Sutton and Walshe show us, truth, fact and rigour are important and carry strong political meaning, as the use of Sutton’s earlier work in justifying the Intervention shows. But so is the capacity to think beyond received categories. Pascoe and Gerritsen were free to do their own thinking and come to their own conclusions because they were not constrained by orthodoxy. They have inspired and will inspire further research, and it is in that future research that a richer picture of Aboriginal socio-cultural life will emerge. 

1 Richard Davis, ‘Black Agriculture, White Anger: Arguments over Aboriginal Land Use in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu’, Borderlands, 1(1), 2020, pp 57–70,  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344225214_Black_Agriculture_White_Anger_arguments_over_Aboriginal_land_use_in_Bruce_Pascoe%27s_Dark_Emu#fullTextFileContent

2 Peter Sutton and Bruce Rigsby, ‘Linguistic Communities and Social Networks on Cape York Peninsula’, in Stephen Wurm (ed.), Australian Linguistic Studies, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra, 1979, pp. 713–32; Peter Sutton, ‘Linguistic Aspects of Ethnobotanical Research, in Bruce Rigsby and Peter Sutton (eds), Contributions to Australian Linguistics, pp 303–14, 1980; Athol Kennedy Chase and Peter Sutton, ‘Hunter-gatherers in a Rich Environment: Aboriginal Coastal Exploitation in Cape York Peninsula’, in Allen Keast (ed.), Ecological Biogeography of Australia, The Hague: W. Junk, 1981, pp. 1817–52.

3 Fred Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986; Francesca Merlan, Caging the Rainbow: Place, Politics and Aborigines in a North Australian Town, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998, p. 233.

4 Peter Sutton, ‘The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Policy in Australia since the 1970s’, Anthropological Forum, vol. 11, no. 2, 2001, pp 125–73.

5 Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2009.

6 Jon Charles Altman, Hunter-Gatherers Today: An Aboriginal Economy in North Australia, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1987, p. 9.

7 Marcus Barber and Sue Jackson, Indigenous Water Values and Water Planning in the Upper Roper River, Northern Territory, CSIRO: Water for a Healthy Country National Research Flagship, 2011. 

8 Marcus Barber and Sue Jackson, ‘Identifying and Categorizing Co-benefits in State-supported Australian Indigenous Environmental Management Programs: International Research Implications’, Ecology and Society 22(2), 2017, p. 11.

9 Diane Bell, ‘Gathered from Kaytej Women’, in Derek John Mulvaney and John Peter White (eds.), Australians to 1788, Broadway, New South Wales: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, pp 239–51; Diane Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming, Melbourne: McPhee Gribble/Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1983.

10 Julie D. Finlayson and Frances Morphy, Ethnographer and Contrarian: Biographical and Anthropological Essays in Honour of Peter Sutton, Mile End, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2020; Paul Monaghan and Michael Walsh, More than Mere Words: Essays on Language and Linguistics in Honour of Peter Sutton, Mile End, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2020.

11 Jessica Weir, Stephen Sutton and Gareth Catt, ‘The Theory/Practice of Disaster Justice: Learning from Indigenous Peoples’ Fire Management’, in Anna Lukasiewicz and Claudia Baldwin (eds), Natural Hazards and Disaster Justice: Challenges for Australia and Its Neighbours, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

12 M. Garde, B. L. Nadjamerrek, M. Kolkkiwarra, J. Kalarriya, J. Djandjomerr, B. Birriyabirriya, R. Bilindja, M. Kubarkku, and P. Biless, ‘The Language of Fire: Seasonality, Resources and Landscape Burning on the Arnhem Land Plateau’, in J. Russell-Smith, P. Whitehead and P. Cooke (eds), Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition, Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO, 2009, pp 85–180. 

13 Keith Windschuttle, ‘Mabo and the Fabrication of Aboriginal History’, Proceedings of the Fifteenth Conference of the Samuel Griffith Society, 15, 2003, p. 120, http://samuelgriffith.org.au/docs/vol15/v15chap11.pdf. 

14 Michael Westaway et al., ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: The Archaeological Landscape of Mithaka Country, South-west Queensland’, Antiquity, 95(382), 2021, pp 1043–60.

About the author

Richard Davis

Dr Richard Davis is an anthropologist who has worked with Indigenous people across northern and central Australia, and the Torres Strait. He has held academic positions in several Australian universities, worked as an applied anthropologist, and advised the federal government and British Museum on the protection and repatriation of Indigenous human remains. He is currently employed as an anthropologist by the federal government.

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I don’t think Richard Davis has properly understood the linguistic evidence cited by Sutton for the complete lack of basic agricultural terms in 40 different Aboriginal languages and his comparison with Keith Windschuttle’s nonsense about Tasmanian Aboriginal history is far fetched…

‘the popularity of Dark Emu suggests an Australian audience willing to embrace the vision of Aboriginal people as described by Pascoe.’
According to Nielsen Book, the leading provider of search, commerce, consumer research and retail sales analysis services for the book industry, “Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? (Keryn Walshe & Peter Sutton, Melbourne University Publishing) is the number one bestseller
since its release on 13 June 2021 in Nielsen BookScan’s History category. Furthermore, it has held the top spot in the category for six in a row out of the eight weeks since release.” – Bianca Whiteley, Territory Manager of Nielsen Book Australia.

I write to contest the author’s speculation about ‘a certain anthropological hubris’ in the area of Australian Indigenous Studies.
Given the proud history of the anthropology discipline that has historically paid serious and empathetic attention to Aboriginal culture when nobody else was interested, plus the last 45 years of applied research for land claims, native title and cultural heritage matters, an accusation of hubris rings hollow.

Where there is antipathy to anthropology in the universities it is countered across the continent by the lengthy and strong working relationships researchers in the discipline typically establish with Indigenous communities. That kind of mutually respectful cross-cultural relationship is evident throughout Peter Sutton’s book and the history of his life’s work.

What has been lacking for several decades now in the universities is an appropriately robust response to a politics of indigenism that is driven as much by competition over academic jobs and resources as by any clear-eyed examination of the wealth of scholarship and teaching that has arisen from the discipline of anthropology. This is currently evident in the University of Western Australia’s pretence that by sacking anthropologists and sociologists the institution is somehow supporting a School of Indigenous Studies. This is a convenient foil for a surprisingly blunt form of anti-intellectualism in relation to the Humanities and Social Sciences generally.

Just as the wider society’s embracing of Dark Emu is aptly depicted by Sutton and Walshe as a clumsy desire among Australians to find moral recovery amidst defuse and confused White guilt, university administrators keen to be seen to be on the right side of settler colonial history vie to be the warriors who give priority to ‘Indigenous knowledge’. Some go so far as to proudly embrace the idea that such knowledge will be ‘embedded in all teaching and research’, though the intellectual fragility of this posture has meant it remains mostly a vaguely stated aspiration rather than any serious attempt to understand what the proposition could mean in the case of different academic disciplines.

Anthropologists along with other researchers who have spent much time learning about spiritual and related beliefs across Indigenous Australia typically shake their heads in disbelief when well-meaning colleagues and university hierarchies proclaim a policy of embedding ‘knowledges’ as part of ‘reconciliation action plans’. There is enormous confusion over what this knowledge is, how it has changed across generations in regions of Australia with highly diverse histories and timelines of engagement with the wider society, and the operation of strategic essentialism in some settings that seeks to silo studies of intercultural relations among only those university employees who assert one or more Indigenous forebears.

Farmers or hunter-gatherers is an admirable achievement that cuts through superficial identity politics to argue for evidence-based research that respects cultural difference without making things up. As several Indigenous and other reviewers of the book have concluded, the authors are to be commended for courageous writing against emerging fashionable assumptions concerning the nature of precolonial Indigenous cultures in Australia.

I have made no assertions in my review that Anthropology can be replaced by Indigenous Studies at University of Western Australia, or about other fashionable assumptions of identity politics, however that is construed.

Our discipline being under attack around Australia, should not prevent us from engaging in critical analysis of anthropological work. That really would be a form of anti-intellectualism in relation to Anthropology and unhealthy for the discipline.

As Arena associate editor (commissioning) I invited Richard Davis to review Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? seeking a considered and nuanced anthropologically informed take of the debate for a wide readership.

I am puzzled by two comments.

Nathan Hollier is publisher and CEO at Melbourne University Press. On more than one occasion now he has defended the decision to publish Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? Why? There is no question that the issues raised by Dark Emu should be debated. That’s as it should be. But why go on to defend the decision to publish on the basis of its sales? Using that metric, Dark Emu is the better book to date, although with time Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? might win the sales race. Is Nathan’s test intended as an assessment of a book’s worth? Analysis might suggest that high initial sales of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is merely a by-product of the popularity of Dark Emu, the sales of which have also swelled since June 2021.

David Trigger, former head of anthropology at UWA, is rightly concerned about the possible demise of that department in university restructuring, a concern widely shared by anthropologists including Richard Davis. But to depict the polemical debate between Bruce Pascoe’s precolonial ‘farmers’ and Peter Sutton’s precolonial ‘hunter-gatherers plus’ as an exemplar of the long-term challenge to anthropology from identity politics is somewhat reductionist and dichotomous: Dark Emu is not emblematic of identity politics, nor heaven forbid is Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? speaking for anthropology and archaeology as disciplines. The challenges facing the humanities and social sciences in universities (about which Arena Quarterly 7 next month has more to say from anthropological perspectives) go well beyond this debate.

As for ‘courageous writing’ against the orthodoxy, I would have thought Bruce Pascoe—subject to an obnoxious barrage for his views and identity—might get the gold medal; Sutton and Walshe after all write from far more comfortable positions of power and privilege in Australian society.

As a long-time follower of the Bruce Pascoe Dark Emu thesis, I would suggest, with all due respect, that Dr Davis is making exactly the same misleading mistakes in this article as Bruce Pascoe does in Dark Emu.

I would appreciate if Dr Davis could clarify the following for me. On page 4 of his Arena article, Dr Davis tells us that,
‘Despite its problems, Dark Emu has inspired research prepared to ask new questions. Archaeologists working with the Mithika of the Channel Country have uncovered evidence of earthen weirs developed to provide a flood-driven irrigation system to increase plant growth (Ref 14).’
I checked this reference No. 14, which is a paper by team led by anthropologist and archaeologist Dr Michael Westaway, titled, Hidden in Plain Sight: The Archaeological Landscape of Mithaka Country, [https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/hidden-in-plain-sight-the-archaeological-landscape-of-mithaka-country-southwest-queensland/9661E7F90EB7ED535012484DC35FB01A]

What Michael Westaway in his team’s paper actually says is,
‘Recently there has been renewed interest in the possibility that Indigenous Australians engaged in agriculture before European colonisation (Gerritsen 2008; Pascoe 2014). In this context, there is evidence that the Mithaka constructed earthern weirs to retain water as part of a flood-driven irrigation system in order to increase the productivity of local plant species (Duncan-Kemp 1968)’.

To my mind, it appears that Dr Davis is misleading us by saying, ‘Archaeologists working with the Mithika of the Channel Country have uncovered evidence of earthen weirs…’

Do they didn’t.

Dr Westaway is just claiming that the evidence for the weirs is from a 1968 book written by Alice Duncan-Kemp, a non-academic author who lived in Mithaka country in the early 1900s.

Now I have checked my copy of Duncan-Kemp’s 1968 book, Where Strange Gods Call, and for the life of me I can’t locate where in her 325 page book she refers to ‘evidence that the Mithaka constructed earthern weirs’. [Dr Westaway rather irritatingly doesn’t include the reference page number]

Could Dr Davis or someone else please enlighten me on this? Am I mistaken or has the anti-scholarship influence of Professor Pascoe infiltrated Arena as well?

See pages 274-5 of Where Strange Gods Call : “… went to a great deal of trouble to trap game and fish. In the streams and watercourses, especially in the deeper permanent holes, he constructed traps; some were huge affairs built of stone or stiffly staked woven reeds resembling small pens. In these pens were mustered fish by the hundreds in good seasons, and hence they were kept alive – and fat – until required for a feast ”

This observation on the use of fish traps is interesting and provides evidence for those that wish to classify some Aboriginal societies as ‘complex hunter gatherers’ or ‘hunter gatherer fishers’. However, it doesn’t answer my question of Drs Davis and Westaway claims – “where is the evidence that archaeologists have uncovered evidence that the Mithika constructed earthen weirs to use in the irrigation of crops?” Can anyone enlighten me on this ?

To briefly address my colleague Jon Altman’s puzzlement:

In my opinion the Farmers or Hunter-gatherers debate is, unfortunately, shot through with identity politics. In this review we have the suggestion that Sutton’s anthropology prompts identification of an alleged ‘hubris’ across the discipline. The reasoning is that holding to ‘orthodox scholarly criteria’ in reaching conclusions based on research risks ‘intellectual elitism’.

It is a very short further step to embrace the view that authors’ asserted cultural identities are all we need in assessing their writing about economic life across pre-colonial Indigenous Australia. Baseless accusations of academic hubris and elitism play directly into the identity politics that increasingly drive dismissal of the value of anthropology. That dismissal is part of what we currently face at UWA.

As to comparing the ‘positions of power and privilege’ of Bruce Pascoe, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, I am somewhat astonished that any particular conclusion could be reached without knowing much more about their lives than we do. Or is it simply that Sutton and Walshe, with their formal qualifications and long careers of scholarly research, are structurally more ‘powerful’ than Pascoe who is a farmer, teacher and writer? Just whose socially ascribed position in this debate is the more ‘comfortable’ is an open question. The attractions and detractions of their perceived public identities are part of what makes that so.

Thanks, Richard Davis. You have helped me understand the relationship between Peter Sutton’s dubious The Politics of Suffering and his present critique of Dark Emu. I had assumed it was just the peculiarities of a particular political orientation. But Sutton’s unswerving commitment to Aboriginal peoples having an unadaptable ontology seems to bridge the arguments of the two books.

Richard Davis is to be congratulated for delivering a balanced and careful review of both Pascoe and Sutton, and the wider context within which this “intellectual, scholarly” debate is read, and which he rightly interprets as having generated this debate. For it is very much about the politics of Aboriginality in Australian society and culture, and he rightly and carefully unpacks this politics. He was right to treat Sutton’s critique of Pascoe as a continuation of Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering. There, Sutton defended the Intervention, and those who are now appearing in these pages to support Sutton are the same anthropologists who supported the Intervention and Sutton. This same group, which politicised anthropology by dragging it into providing the ideological and ‘scientific’ framework for justifying the Intervention, is the same group now supporting Sutton’s critique of Pascoe. They are the same group that engages in the self-mystification process of presenting themselves as victims, as scientific martyrs suffering for objective truth against a world of romantic illusory truths. Their unpopularity and the critiques that have emerged of the discipline have supposedly nothing to do with their politics and is an unfortunate necessary product of their truth telling. One of the main defenders of Sutton is Trigger who has also done lots of land claims, like Sutton. It is important to bear in mind that many of these land title anthropologists referee each other’s work and so can be seen as perhaps heavily indebted to each other. As a PhD student, Trigger’s work was introduced to me by senior anthropologists working on Aborigines as a pioneering ethnography that would correct the romantic constructions of those anthropologists who explored Aboriginal resistances to over-policing and the militarisation of policing that was occurring in rural areas from the 1980s. This was part of a conservative backlash within Australian anthropology against it taking up such issues as the policing and the criminalisation of Aborigines. It has never recovered from that simple minded critique that to study resistances is to engage in romantic constructions that deny assimilation. Trigger has stayed true to his roots and politics, and he is part of the same ideological bloc within anthropology as Sutton. It is worth noting how disciplines such as history have been partly replaced by anthropology in terms of providing the scientific credential for right wing political causes in Australia. Davis is spot on and should have gone further. There are exceptions in the discipline, most notably Jon Altman, Melinda Hinkson, Barry Morris and Gillian Cowlishaw.

It is always surprising to be accused of things that bear no resemblance to reality. In this case the accusations also veer far from the issues being debated. Andrew Lattas’s adversarial comments about me are marginal at best to the substantive matters raised by Richard Davis’s review.

So it is difficult to judge how to respond to such a shrill suite of accusations and generalisations. They appear designed mainly to promote the commentator’s desired political identity as a self-righteous academic warrior against an imaginary ‘conservative backlash’ asserted to have started some time ago in Australian anthropology.

For the record, I will simply note for those interested, that my lengthy work on intercultural relations encompassing Indigenous Australia is available in the public domain. To try to position that work as somehow contrary to progressive thinking is ridiculous.

In this discussion I have expressed a particular concern about unconvincing critique suggesting ‘hubris’ and ‘elitism’ in Sutton and Walshe’s book and in anthropology more generally. This has nothing to do with the wide-ranging and ill-founded accusations in Andrew Lattas’s comments.

I am tempted to regret that as a PhD student he was apparently asked to read my work all those years ago. It seems to have led to considerable resentment and prompted ad hominem rhetorical attacks of the kind we have here. I will not respond further to this kind of personal invective.

Trigger courts responses and then complains about being considered reactionary. I don’t think reviving the language of Howard years ‘culture wars’ is a useful addition to this discussion. Dredging up the language of ‘white guilt’, University administrators political correctness and astonishingly a concern about the priority given Indigenous knowledges does little to advance the value and importance of anthropology. As an aside Western Australia, the new VC of the UWA comes with a reputation for corporate rebranding. He was appointed from the University of Western Ontario for his ‘demonstrated success in developing high quality teaching and learning while building research capability and important partnerships across academic, government and industry sectors’. The Proposal for Change itself purports to speak to a market driven model of course offerings and student numbers. Collectively, we have been dealing with the rise of corporate speak and its practices for decades. Successive Coalition governments have embraced this managerial model and mounted successive assaults on the Humanities and Social Sciences for decades. These are not the substantive issues that come to the foreground when discussing Davis’s review.

What was refreshing about Richard Davis article was that it reviewed Sutton and Walshe’s book, Farmers or Hunter Gatherers (FoHG) rather that provide a proxy critique of Pascoe. Thankfully he focusses more on FoGH and its strengths, but also its significant omissions. Richard’s earlier essay in Borderlands also deserves mention. Published in 2020, it provided me with an excellent platform for understanding Sutton and Walshe’s book. Many of the issues subsequently raised about Pascoe’s book Davis engaged with in Borderlands. The question the way ‘value’ is thought to flow from the way humans live and work on land’, which has significant historical ramifications for the moral and legal rights to colonial dispossess. Pascoe book challenges Locke and Blackstone pronouncements in the 18th century about settler colonies (repeated in the Blackburn Judgement in the Mirirrpum case) that productive men, as they put it, cultivated God’s earth as opposed to those who roamed freely and did not enclose or cultivate the land. Pascoe’s version is not the western notion of ‘farming’. Yet, with no sense of irony, it is western definitions that Sutton and Walshe frame their critique. Pascoe’s selective use of colonial British observations and his use of an evolutionary model are also raised and considered in a nuanced way. These issues are reproduced FoHG, but in a shriller tone and set up in a hard edged binary form.

As a lay reader in this field, I have found this debate fascinating. Thanks to Arena and to Richard Davis for pushing it along a bit further. My initial sympathies lay with Sutton/Walshe, somewhat reinforced by Guy Rundle’s review in Crikey shortly after the book came out. I was always troubled by the seeming determination of Pascoe to demonstrate that Aboriginal people pre-settlement were agriculturalists. The attraction of doing so, for a popular communicator, are clear enough: they make pre-settlement Aboriginal culture suddenly much more transparent to those — that is most of us — who belong to a pragmatic, secular, utilitarian society. The achievement is not to be underestimated: Dark Emu tapped a very widespread desire in Australia, across quite a wide social spectrum, for a way to identify with the humanity that has existed on this continent for tens of thousands of years. Pascoe recognised and addressed this need. The question is whether he renders pre-settlement Aboriginal culture *too* transparent, whether he buys the capacity for imaginative cross-cultural translation too much at the cost of a reductionist idea of what it is to be human. This seems to me a really fundamental question and one that opens onto so many others. The only thing that troubles me about the debate is the way it has tended to become tribal — not just on this comment thread but in my social media feed — with polemical arguments being made to shore up one or other position, leading to fair amount of strained argument and cheap point-scoring. I suppose that’s to be expected given that we’re talking about existential assumptions. But it does raise questions about the possibility of a plural progressivism. Is there room for respectful differences of view about these questions within a broadly progressive umbrella? If there isn’t, aren’t we confirming the accusations of groupthink that are so often hurled against us?

It was a real disappointment to see the author fluctuate between engaged critiques of the underlying ontology of Sutton’s work (interesting and valid stuff) and vague intimations that Sutton is somehow politically suspect (eg that the lower number of female elders somehow compromises his work in an as yet undefined way). The conclusion that Dark Emu is, with its manifold faults, still valuable because of the hypothetical future inquiry that it will inspire is insipid and entirely misses the point of serious academic work (or what the author sneeringly dismisses as ‘orthodoxy’). Something which Sutton, Walshe, and many others thankfully still take seriously.

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