Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2014

Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? by Bruce Pascoe #BookReview

Dark emuI first became aware of this remarkable book when two of my favourite bloggers posted reviews of it on the same day: they are both historians, and they were both  impressed.

Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past piqued my interest with her comment that Pascoe used the journals of Australia’s explorers to make his case:

Pascoe draws on the work of Bill Gammage, R Gerritsen and others as well as his own research make a strong argument for the reconsideration of our understanding of the way Aboriginal people lived in colonial times. He draws extensively from the journals of explorers to present a remarkable array of evidence about the agricultural and technological sophistication of Aborigines before contact.

And Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip linked the book to some recent unfortunate remarks made by our blundering Prime Minister.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

Like many teachers, I’ve used the term hunter-gatherer in exactly that way, and so I felt impelled to read the book.  I’ve had Bill Gammadge’s award-winning The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia on the TBR for ages, and I will get round to reading it one day, but it was an indigenous voice I wanted to hear.  Now that I’ve read it for myself, I think that this is an indigenous voice Australians should hear…

In 156 pages, Pascoe has inverted almost everything I thought I knew about pre-colonial Australia.  Importantly, he’s not relying on oral history, which runs the risk of being too easily debunked, his sources are the journals of notable explorers and surveyors, of pastoralists and protectors.  He quotes them verbatim, describing all the signs of a complex civilisation but viewed through the blinkered lens of appropriation and White superiority.  These diaries describe systematic agriculture and aquaculture; permanent dwellings; storage and preservation methods and the use of fire to manage the difficult Australian environment.  The reader can sense Pascoe’s pride in asserting that all these complex systems were managed through stable government that was fundamentally democratic in nature.  (Elders, after all, earned their role through initiation and learning the law: they did not inherit their power or grasp it through conquest.)

There is much more to this exciting book than I have outlined here so I urge you to follow the links above to Yvonne’s and Janine’s reviews.  They interrogate the book as historians do, with the expertise of their profession.  Also check out Adventures in Biography and the book’s own blog.  Thanks to MST for the link:)

As a teacher, however, I recommend it as essential reading for any educator.

Dark Emu has been shortlisted for Victorian Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing.

Author: Bruce Pascoe
Title:  Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident
Publisher: Magabala Books. 2014
ISBN: 9781922142436
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?
Or direct from Magabala Books

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff


  1. I saw Bruce Pascoe talk about Dark Emu at this year’s SWF. He is a very passionate man – and has a lot to say. I’m looking forward to reading this soon.

    • Hi John
      Did you write about it in one of your wonderful SWF reports?

      • I should have! I started something, a combo piece, on both that session, which also featured Henry Reynolds talking about The Forgotten War, and then a later session with Alexis Wright talking about The Swan Book… but it got waylaid in amongst other posts and work and so on. Sigh. Henry Reynolds spoke very well, too.

        • Next year, John, I’m coming up for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (I’ve never been!) and while I’m shouting you a drink, *chuckle* I’ll also ‘gently’ remind you so that you don’t forget!

  2. A marvellous book that fills in many of the gaps that Gammage’s book leaves. Both are compelling reading for people who like me are interested in pre-colonial history and how this country was shaped by the peoples and societies who have been here for tens of thousands of years.

    • So you’ve read the Gammadge book? LOL It seems so chunky for a book that has gaps… but IMO that’s so often the difference between a well-intentioned non-indigenous voice and an Aboriginal one. I like the passion that lies behind Pascoe’s work… I’ve only read his children’s novel but it was in that too.

  3. […] Today, well-respected blogger Lisa Hill reviews Dark Emu from an educator’s point view on her ANZ Lit Lovers blog […]

  4. Dark Emu is a genuinely important book. It challenges everything we thought we ‘knew’ about Aboriginal land management before white settlement. The book has a blog of its own at

  5. Thanks for this recommendation Lisa.I’m starting to think that – as I did the Aust Women’s Writers challenge this year – I should spend next year reading indigenous authors and books about indigenous issues. I don’t know nearly enough.

    • I’ve found, over the last few years, that some of my most rewarding reading has been by indigenous authors. There’s always something more to learn!

  6. The convictions and self-confidence of the colonists meant that the indigenous people’s hadn’t a chance of continuing their culture and way of life. It happened across the globe and now we only see the ghosts of the pre-colonial times through books like this. No doubt it will happen to us one day too, or we will do it to ourselves more likely. A very interesting review as always

    • Thanks, Tom.
      I think I might agree that we might be ‘doing it to ourselves’. One of the things I notice in Britain is that you haven’t succumbed to Americanisation the way we have. Not yet anyway!

  7. […] Pascoe Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014 ) Ellen van Neerven Heat and Light (2014) Jeanine Leane Purple Threads […]

  8. […] Pascoe Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014 ) Ellen van Neerven Heat and Light (2014) Jeanine Leane Purple Threads […]

  9. […] Pascoe Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014 ) Ellen van Neerven Heat and Light (2014) Jeanine Leane Purple Threads […]

  10. […] Pascoe Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014 ) Ellen van Neerven Heat and Light (2014) Jeanine Leane Purple Threads […]

  11. […] at 6 pm Purple Threads (2011) Bruce Pascoe – Speaking at 3:30 – 4:15 pm Signing at 6 pm Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014 ) Ellen van Neerven – Speaking at 4:25 – 5:10 pm Signing at 6 pm Heat and Light […]

  12. […] Fog a Dox won the YA category in the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and last year I reviewed Pascoe’s remarkable story of indigenous agricultural practice, Dark Emu which IMO is destined to become an essential reference book for anyone wanting to know about how […]

  13. […] Dark Emu, Black Seeds, agriculture or accident? by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2015 (see my review) […]

  14. […] Indigenous Writer’s (biennial) Prize: Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu (which is on my radar but has also been read by that voracious reader, Lisa!) […]

  15. […] Pascoe’s Dark Emu (Magabala Books, 2014) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): analyses pre-colonial indigenous Australian culture suggesting that it was more […]

  16. […] Judge of Port Phillip) and Yvonne (Stumbling Through the Past), as well as teacher-librarian Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and biographer Michelle (Adventures in […]


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