Review Blog

May 31 2019

Young dark emu by Bruce Pascoe

cover image

Magabala, 2019. ISBN: 9781925360844.
(Age: 9+) Highly recommended. Themes: Aboriginal themes, Aboriginal agriculture, Aboriginal aquaculture. Coming across a reference to Aboriginal agriculture sent Bruce Pascoe into researching a little known area of Australian history. Saddled with the usual notion taught in schools and believed by mainstream Australia, that Aboriginal people were nomadic hunters and gatherers, Pascoe began to look at diaries, recollections and illustrations by early European settlers and explorers with different eyes. He came across many examples of agriculture - sowing crops, harvesting, then storing food, aquaculture and fish traps, of using fire and constructing wells. And of villages where many families lived. Not always sedentary many would have had two residences, taking into account seasonal crops, sacred sites and their use of fire.
Pascoe published his significant findings in the book, Dark emu (Magabala Books, 2014) and a radio interview with ABC's Fran Kelly can be heard here. Young dark emu is a version of his research rewritten for a younger audience and a copy should be in every school, read and discussed. It overturns the accepted view of Aboriginal life in Australia prior to colonisation and shows how these people used the land and its resources with knowledge, expertise and care.
Pascoe quotes explorers like Mitchell and Sturt who came across villages where huts were constructed with mud caked over the outside, where large groups of people lived, and fields with crops, usually yam and grasses (it is estimated Aboriginal people cultivated 140 different grasses). When Sturt and his men staggered over the last sandhill of what is now Sturt's Stony Desert, they were amazed to find an Aboriginal village where the men came out with containers of water for the dehydrated explorers and their horses. They were shown one of the huts to sleep in for the night and given some wood with which to build a fire.
Many people have heard of the Brewarrina fish traps in northern New South Wales, said to be the oldest human construction in the world. Early colonists were amazed at how these worked, allowing juvenile fish to escape while catching the older fish, enough for all. Fish traps were also evident along the Murray and one extensive fish trap along with a village was destroyed at Port Fairy in Victoria by early settlers.
The evidence mounts up in Pascoe's book, divided into six chapters about Aboriginal use of the land: Agriculture, Aquaculture, Home, Food Storage and Fire, then Sacred Places. In his first chapter, Pascoe tells us about the land grab that saw the colonisers take over Aboriginal territory, ruining their crops, replacing the animals with sheep, so destroying the land tilled by generations and causing widespread starvation and consequently a reliance on European food. Pascoe's compelling retelling of Australia's history is beautifully illustrated with documents and images from the past, all acknowledged in the Picture Credits at the end, along with a detailed Index, Acknowledgements, Bibliography and information about the author, Bruce Pascoe.
Pascoe likens our understanding of Aboriginal history to the image of an emu in the night sky. Aboriginal people see the emu, a dark space between the stars, whereas Europeans see the stars and the shapes made by them. It is time we took a different perspective and sought out those dark spaces to reassess our view of Australia prior to colonisation and this book is the first step to that better understanding.
Fran Knight

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