Dark Emu documentary reveals new evidence of Aboriginal mining and trading
Although I once taught in a university department that offered courses in anthropology, my contact with the discipline is only a nodding one. I think I have learned enough, however, to offer some preliminary observations about the controversy below. The most original claims below are about the Mithaka are so I will confine my comments to that
And what I see of the "research" involved is pretty ludicrous. Example:
It consists of little more than "Ethnohistoric accounts". And what are they in plain speech? They are stories recently "remembered" by elderly Aborigines. Which makes them no evidence of anything.
The claims also feature historical accounts by whites of Aborigines in the middle of the 19th century and as late as the early 1900. "Diaries and photographs from the early 1900s" are evidence of what pre-settlemt Aborigines did??? Should we not instead conclude that Aborigines had learned some things from whites in the previous 150 to 200 years?
And some writers have drawn large conclusions about holes in the sandstone in the Mithaka area. see below
Calling them grinding stones requires imagination. Once when I was a kid I did do a bit of amateur archeology. I went digging in the Innisfail area in a place that was reputed to have been an Aboriginal settlement. And I made a very clear discovery. It was a very recognizable stone axe with grooves to allow it to be fastened to a shaft.
So I know that real Aboringinal artifacts have a shape derived from their use and which suggests their use. Form follows function. I can see nothing of that in the bits of rock above. None of their different shapes suggest grinding of anything. A profusion uf well-worn flat stones would have been expected but I see none of that
That is pretty obvious so some writers suggest that these bit of rock were "blanks" to be used for later work to transform them into something. But where are those later works? I can find no mention of lots of them being found
My conclusion is that the sandstone holes are natural formations of some kind. Aborigines may have visited them but are unlikely to have produced them
So why all the excitement? We read that "The current project was initiated in part by the Mithaka Aboriginal group", which suggests that it is just propaganda designed to promote respect for Aborigines.
Bruce Pascoe’s bestselling book Dark Emu challenged thinking about Indigenous history – and sparked a fierce culture war – by arguing that Aboriginal people engaged in agriculture, irrigation, construction and baking rather than just being hunter-gatherers before European settlement.
Now the author, academic and farmer has gone even further in a documentary that argues there is new evidence of Aboriginal mining and trading of the grinding stones that were produced.
Writer-director Allan Clarke’s The Dark Emu Story, which has a world premiere at Sydney Film Festival on Saturday, refers to a recent archeological site on Mithaka country in south-west Queensland that Pascoe believes reveals a new level of sophistication to Aboriginal land use.
“The people there were engaged in a massive mining operation to extract mining stone cores and dressed them and faced them so that they would be a product for other communities,” he said on the way to Sydney for the screening.
“The trade of those stones is yet to be really studied, but it’s going to be fascinating because nearly three and a half million stones were mined and then crafted. The vast majority – 95 per cent – were traded.”
Pascoe said these sandstone cores, or blanks, were used to grind grain, which indicated that Aboriginal people largely had “a grain-dependent civilisation” before British settlement. Outside the tropics and desert regions that did not produce grass “the vast majority of places were grinding grain into flour”.
While the archeological site in the documentary is between Birdsville and Windorah, Pascoe said there was similar evidence of surface mining further west.
“The mining doesn’t look like conventional mining,” he said. “But any miner would understand that it would be called mining. There’s no machinery obviously, but there were tools and levers.”
Published in 2014, Dark Emu was critically acclaimed, won major literary awards and has sold a phenomenal 360,000 copies. The Indigenous dance company Bangarra adapted it into a dance and Pascoe wrote a version for young readers.
But there has also been ferocious backlash that questioned Pascoe’s claims about the sophistication of Aboriginal culture and the quality of his research.
The most comprehensive rebuttal came two years ago in anthropologist Peter Sutton and archeologist Keryn Walshe’s book Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate.
They argued that Pascoe was broadly wrong in his claims about the sophistication of Aboriginal culture and that his book was poorly researched, exaggerated many points, selectively emphasised evidence to suit his opinions and ignored information that did not support his case.
Sutton and Walshe raise their concerns in The Dark Emu Story, which will screen on the ABC later this year.
But as producer Darren Dale of Blackfella Films has said, the documentary is “us trying to reclaim some of the debate around the book”.
Clarke, a writer-director who is best known for the SBS documentary The Bowraville Murders, is a Muruwari and Gomeroi filmmaker and The Dark Emu Story has Indigenous academic Marcia Langton, broadcasters Stan Grant and Narelda Jacobs, choreographer Stephen Page and others arguing for the book’s importance despite the criticisms.
Originally planned as a three-part series, it is now a single feature-length documentary that is competing in the festival’s $60,000 competition for “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” films.
“Because the culture wars erupted the way they did, that had to be addressed,” Pascoe said. “That’s now quite a significant part of the film’s purpose, to talk about those issues and how they manifest themselves in Australia.”
Pascoe rejected the criticisms in Sutton and Walshe’s book.
“I find it a little bit embarrassing that people of such great intelligence can avert their eyes from the bleeding obvious,” he said. “The film addresses that and the significance of the new archaeologies is unmissable and this is what I hope Australians will cheer about.
“They will find after watching the film that there are many examples of Aboriginal people having a really strong, well-founded society and economy.”
The controversy has been hard on Pascoe, who says in the documentary that it resulted in him separating from his wife, author Lyn Harwood, for four years and that they still live in different houses, adding: “I just feel very tired in my spirit.”
Before the screening, Pascoe said he expected the backlash.
“I was also expecting the kind of [positive] response that the book had because during its production over a period of five or seven years, I’d come to understand Australia’s craving for a more realistic telling of the history,” he said. “But I knew that there were some in the country that could not tolerate anything but a colonial Raj mentality.”
Andrew Bolt and other conservative commentators have called Dark Emu a literary hoax and claim Pascoe invented an Aboriginal family background.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Pascoe said. “Eighty-five per cent of my genes are Cornish and English so I can see both sides of the fence.
“That’s a difficult position to be in. You ask any Aboriginal person how difficult it is to honour both families.
“But it’s really the Australian condition, where we have to come to terms with the fact that for 30, 40 years there were virtually no white women in this country. As a consequence, there are a lot of mixed-race Aboriginal people.”
Pascoe said Australians should be excited by archeological revelations that indicate “a culture that has no other likeness in the world”.
“This last 20 or 30 years has been quite revelatory about the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.
The Voice to parliament referendum, Pascoe said, had been caught up in the same culture war as Dark Emu.
“It’s really sad that conversations which should be considered and full of information and progress become three-word slogans – “the Canberra Voice” and things like that, which are just silly,” he said. “Aboriginal people who have misgivings now, should the Voice succeed, will find that it changes a lot.”