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.