Throughout history, humans have looked to the night sky to help explain their existence, but the conclusions peoples draw from the same sky can be remarkably different. European astronomy uses constellations of stars to tell a story, but sometimes Aboriginal Australia uses the darkness between the stars. Dark Emu is a shape in the dark areas between the stars of the Milky Way. It’s a different way of seeing.
So begins Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu, a beautiful new version of his award winning and influential book Dark Emu, this edition created for younger readers. Using the first-hand accounts of early European explorers, colonists and farmers, Bruce Pascoe argues for us to look again at the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that was given to pre-colonial Aboriginal people.
With clear text, striking archival photographs and stylised illustrations, Young Dark Emu takes the reader through a journey of re-discovery about Aboriginal culture.
It was a culture that understood and used agriculture and aquaculture to survive in the continent’s diverse environment, Bruce Pascoe argues. It was a culture that had established homes, villages, social structures and sacred places, he demonstrates through a careful exploration of original evidence. There was Lieutenant Grey, who explored Western Australia and witnessed huge tracts of planted yam fields.
Victorian farmer Isaac Bates reported that Aboriginal people had terraced the land for erosion protection over ‘a long series of years’ before his arrival. Explorer Thomas Mitchell came across substantial crops of a wheat-like grain with hay stacks with grain harvested and stored. Arthur Ashwin found several stockpiles while travelling through the Barkly Tableland in northern Australia, including one he estimated to be hold one ton of seed.
Evidence of Aboriginal peoples’ aquaculture activities can be seen today in the Brewarrina fish trap, estimated to be at least 40,000 years old. The large structure allowed people to harvest the fish they needed, while allowing enough fish to survive and be sustainable. There were many more descriptions of Aboriginal people farming water resources, but most physical evidence has been destroyed.
European settlers found Indigenous peoples’ fire management techniques alarming as ‘many early records describe Aboriginal groups lighting fires to burn areas of land’. It became clear that burning practices were carefully managed and had the effect of controlling the intensity of wild fires as well as adding nutrients to the soil and keeping areas clear for farming.
Young Dark Emu touches on the perspectives of the early European settlers and explorers and the devastating effects their arrival had on Aboriginal peoples. These impacts came not only from the frontier wars that followed ‘the land grab’ and disease, but also from the destruction of long-established Indigenous land management practices. The newcomers destroyed indigenous croplands so quickly that Aboriginal people were forced to depend on British food. The combination of deaths from fighting disease and starvation crushed the Aboriginal resistance.
While covering complex issues that go to the heart of Australia’s ancient and contemporary history, Young Dark Emu is sure to intrigue and inform its readers, as well as influence them to look again at our assumptions and shared history.
By Lucy Kingston
SANTS acknowledges that the land on which our office is based is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and we respect their spiritual and cultural relationship with their country.