In their new book, ‘Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers: the Dark Emu Debate’, Sutton and Walshe, scholarly evaluate a common Eurocentric view of Australian Aboriginal culture that is, in their view, reinforced by the best-selling ‘Dark Emu’ written by Bruce Pascoe, a well-known Aboriginal author. They characterise Pascoe’s book as unfortunately and ironically Eurocentric: while applauding its hunter-gatherer skills, other parts of Aboriginal culture are interpreted as signs of being merely on the threshold of becoming civilized, in the Eurocentric sense. Sutton and Walshe disagree, arguing that Aboriginal knowledge of their environment was so profound and their social organization so complex, that their culture, organised around equality and sustainability, was distinctly civilized.
While generalisations across the approximately 250 language groups in Australia are not possible, some major points emerged:
Their findings on equality reinforce the research on many other indigenous peoples worldwide, emphasising that everything was shared; everybody ate. Just as significantly, within groups, social roles were differentiated without generating discordant inequality.
Sustainability was achieved by applying sophisticated, ecological knowledge of the ecosystems on which each group relied. Fire was more practical than agriculture for the management of resources in Australian environments. Controlled fire mosaics generated abundant food through the manipulation and maintenance of the flora and fauna already present. (Aboriginal fire practices are being belatedly adopted in many parts of Australia following the disastrous 2020 infernos). The authors reviewed many conservation practices that contributed to sustainability, particularly the sequestration of areas where hunting or gathering was reduced or prohibited, i.e., conservation reserves.
Some Aboriginal groups were observed scattering seeds, and this was widely interpreted as ‘proto’ agriculture, although soil was never tilled, seeds never planted, seedlings never maintained. Indeed, Aboriginals saw no need for these additional activities. Thus, the Eurocentric view, primed for mechanisms such as tillage and sowing, has been unwilling to recognise that seed scattering was not ‘proto’ agriculture, but a sufficient and productive end in itself. Indeed, evidence suggests that agricultural methods, observed among northern neighbours, were tried, and abandoned.
Misconceptions about Aboriginal social organisation were re-examined, not least, the extent of nomadic versus sedentary phases. The authors showed that groups could be sedentary for weeks, months or occasionally years, with ecosystem and season as critical determinants. Some stone structures that appeared permanent, and therefore regarded as signs of ‘civilization’, were often not for permanent occupation but rather to ensure their availability for the next visit. Nomadism was not aimless, as often supposed, but utilised well-known routes exploiting encyclopaedic knowledge of topography, and food, water, medicine, and shelter resources. Group size, varying greatly according to ecosystem and resources, was often 100 or less; expansion could be limited by respect for neighbours.
Sutton and Walshe emphasise the fundamental importance of the Dreamtime beliefs and rituals to the well-being of everyone. While some appeared to have little or no practical application, others are immediately recognisable as good ecological management. There may be little demarcation between ‘ritual’ and ‘practical’ activities as both are equally important to the success of hunting and gathering.
Aboriginal people had roughly 55,000 years to determine how much intervention with nature was required to survive and prosper. They lived through massive sea-level rise, glaciation, drought, and climate change. Not only does the Eurocentric view frequently fail to recognise this astonishing and unique achievement, but it also claims that Aboriginal practices merely reached the bottom rung in some supposed series of progressive steps on the ladder to civilization. An opposing view, championed in this book, is that Aboriginal culture is the successful, equitable and sustainable culmination of a multi-millennial equilibrium with the environment.
Aboriginal people remind us of the profound flaw in what we call civilization, that is, the transience, volatility or absence of equality and sustainability. Recognised civilizations built vast cities and infrastructures, often involving warfare, slavery, religious intolerance, and massive environmental destruction, and yet they faded away. Aboriginals largely avoided these and, although recently decimated by European colonials, remain as Earth’s oldest continuous culture. To misquote Caesar: they came, they saw, they adapted.