Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2021

Combined Reviews: Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers (2021) by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe

I am out of my depth when it comes to reviewing Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe.  When back in 2014 (as you can see in my review), I read Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I was convinced by author Bruce Pascoe’s use of historical sources to show that, before 1788, there was systematic agriculture and aquaculture; permanent dwellings; storage and preservation methods and the use of fire to manage the difficult Australian environment.  On my LisaHillSchoolStuff blog I recommended the text as one that should be widely read and also taught in schools.

So it was chastening to read Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers, the Dark Emu Debate by Professor Peter Sutton FASSA and Dr Keryn Walshe.  I only had to read the Introduction to realise that I was one of the many who read Dark Emu as a revelatory experience when in fact there were for many decades texts in which a simply nomadic’ description of the Old People was rejected.  There’s more to reviewing books in this debate than just reading them.

The author profiles on the publisher’s website are impressive:

Sutton is a social anthropologist and linguist who has, over more than 50 years, contributed to learning and recording Aboriginal languages, promoting Aboriginal art, mapping Aboriginal cultural landscapes, increasing understanding of contemporary Aboriginal societies and land tenure systems, and the successes of native title claimants.

Walshe is an archaeologist with more than 35 years of experience in recording, analysing and interpreting Australian Indigenous heritage sites and objects. She has lectured in archaeology, managed Indigenous heritage museum collections and undertaken site assessments for corporate and government agencies. Walshe continues to write for academic journals, advise heritage managers and give public presentations.

But impressive as these credentials are, it is the authors’ cogent argument which makes their work a corrective to my naïve enthusiasm.  I’m not qualified to judge whether what they say about Pascoe’s selective use of sources is a problem, but I do know that evidence-based truth telling necessitates research across the available knowledge bases.  I knew that Pascoe was not a trained historian but I assumed that his research was extensive and even-handed.

In contemporary Aboriginal studies, including history, archaeology and anthropology, academic expertise includes respecting the knowledge of The Old People, i.e. Aboriginal collaborators in the research who share facts and insights from their expertise. Here it is pertinent to note that one of the blurbers praising this book is Dr Kellie Pollard, a Wiradjuri archaeologist, lecturer and researcher at Charles Darwin University:

Sutton and Walshe show that Pascoe tried, and failed, to overturn over a century of anthropological and archaeological study, analysis and documentation, in addition to Aboriginal oral testimony, of the ways of life, governance, socioeconomic behaviour, material, technological and spiritual accomplishments and preferences of Aboriginal people in classical society and on the cusp of colonisation.

My own common sense and experience as a language learner tells me that Chapter 3 ‘The Language Question’ is persuasive.  All languages have vocabulary that match the cultural practices and needs of their users.  But missing from the research into the 260 distinct languages of Australia in 1788 are words for ‘hoed’; ’tilled’; ‘ploughed’; ‘sowed’; ‘planted’; ‘irrigated’ or ‘reaped’.  If what Pascoe claims is true, then there would be multiple words for agricultural activities in Aboriginal languages.  The only language that has a word for ‘garden’ or ‘to sow, to plant’ is Meryam Mir, a Torres Strait language.  (It’s not an Australian language, apparently; it’s a Papuan language within Australia’s borders.)  These people have considerable gardening vocabulary, and mainlanders did adopt some of their technologies such as outrigger canoes and detachable-head harpoons, but they did not adopt horticulture. Sutton makes a convincing argument that this was a choice: obviously Aborigines had expert knowledge of the plants on which they depended but they did not need to farm them and chose not to.

The uncomfortable truth is that if we want to believe that pre-Contact Aborigines were ‘farmers’ (however that’s defined) we are complicit in preferring ‘social-evolutionism’ to ‘cultural relativism’.  As Tim Rowse puts it in his review at The teller and the tale | Inside Story.

Sutton needs no convincing that Australia’s history is a story of colonial conquest and usurpation, but he objects strongly to Pascoe’s way of questioning Australia’s “legitimacy.” The “most fundamental flaw” of Dark Emu, he writes, is that it implicitly endorses the social evolutionists’ scale of human value: by seeking to redescribe the Old People as agriculturalists it has conceded too much to the idea that agriculture is a higher stage than “hunting and gathering.” Sutton urges us to admire the Old People for what they were rather than for what, in Pascoe’s view, they were becoming.

Sutton’s plea for the inherent worth of the hunter-gatherer way of life (and implicitly, for the right of the Old People and their descendants to assert their unceded sovereignty) is a product of “cultural relativism.” In the “human sciences,” cultural relativism began to replace “social evolution” in the second decade of the twentieth century. It has been axiomatic for the research community on whose works Sutton and Walshe rely, and it has been buttressed, since the 1940s, by emerging international law concepts such as the right of “peoples” to “self-determination.” Popular assent to Pascoe’s assumption that Aboriginal people were more admirable for being agricultural suggests that cultural relativism has not yet undermined social evolution in popular thinking about human history.

Reviews of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers are steadily emerging:

Historian Bill Gammage, as you’d expect from the author of The Biggest Estate on Earth, (with which I was also impressed) takes issue with the authors:

Dark Emu is a history and a polemic; the most balanced response I’ve seen to it is by a historian, Tom Griffiths. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers is a detailed response from an anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton, with two chapters and an appendix by an archaeologist, Keryn Walshe. My health stops me from reading all their book, so I’m obliged to cherrypick.

It is unfortunate that he hasn’t read the whole book because IMO it compromises what he has to say.  (And, call me cynical, disrespectful or heartless if you like, but it makes me wonder what kind of health problem stops him from reading the book but enables him to write a 2500 word response.  The Sutton-Walshe book is not an indigestible academic text; it’s written for the general reader like me.)  Anyway, you can read what Gammage has to say in context at The Great Divide | Inside Story  and (all credit to Inside Story for balanced journalism) also a dissenting view at The teller and the tale | Inside Story.

Dr Christine Nicholl’s review at The Conversation is blunt:  this willingness to accept Pascoe’s argument reveals a systemic area of failure in the Australian education system. 

Sutton and Walshe portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state.

In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Other reviews that are not paywalled (though there’s a limit on views at the SMH):

  • Ian Lipke at the Queensland Reviewers Collective represents the matter as an academic stoush and that most people won’t care, but FWIW here’s the link to their review.
  • Ben Wilkie at the SMH says that the debate over which label best fits – farmers or foragers – has obstructed the way towards seeing Aboriginal Australian land and resource management in all its variety and ingenuity. 
  • Michael Davis, also at the SMH says that the success of Dark Emu indicates a public hunger for more information about Indigenous peoples and the extraordinary diversity and resilience of their cultures and societies.  But he then goes on to siphon away potential general readers by expressing a hope that Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, appealing to different audiences, and offering a richly textured alternative interpretation, will add to this conversation and similarly stimulate interest.  Why different audiences? Though the last two chapters written by Walshe are less ‘digestible’ than the  Sutton chapters, the book as a whole is perfectly readable by a competent adult general reader.
  • #Update 23/7/22 I’ve just come across ‘Misreading Dark Emu’ by Gillian Cowlishaw at Pearls and Irritations. She argues that Sutton and Walshe’s arguments ignore Pascoe’s themes, arguments and intentions…

I’ve been retired from teaching now since 2014, and I feel no responsibility for updating the knowledge of my colleagues still in the profession.  However, although my professional blog has been dormant since my retirement, it’s still widely used as a resource, with thousands of views and downloads.  So, since I still feel a sense of professional integrity, I’m going to have to revisit my review there and update it in the light of what I learned from reading Sutton and Walshe’s rebuttal.

Authors: Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
Title: Farmers or Hunter-Gatheres? The Dark Emu Debate
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780522877854, pbk.,288 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP.


  1. […] Update 26/7/21: Please also read my review of the Sutton-Walshe rebuttal of Pascoe’s argument in their book Farmers or Hunter-G… […]


  2. Oh my goodness, Lisa! Good on you keeping up with some of the challenges to historical ideas whether they be old or new and seeing the implications of what sounded good at the time (something like that) Historiography is fascinating as is linguistics. I don’t think we have quite the same differences about our native issues. For too long we tried to separate distinctions into clear-cut categories (Darwin’s time) with specific definitions which we now find don’t fit all the evidence. We thought we understood what we meant by agricultural or by nomad or by foraging. And we put these “categories” into hierarchies with us at the top, of course.

    When we only know one side of an issue we miss a lot of the points another view of the same issue provides.

    What a great start for my day! Thank you.


    • Thank you Becky, your comments have made my day:)


  3. Thank you, Lisa. This is a balanced examination of issues raised by both books. I’m still waiting to read the Sutton/Walshe book, but I’m looking forward to considering their arguments. Dark Emu was revelatory for me (like you), and it made me reconsider just about everything I’d grown up believing. Even if discredited, I’m glad it’s out there, where it’s provoking debate and exposure to ideas that too many non-Indigenous Australians have ignored, either deliberately or accidentally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is so much to learn, and always we are constrained by what it is that comes our way. I’m really glad I read this one, not just because it corrects some of my erroneous ideas, but also because it reveals just how much scholarship has altered so that it is respectful of other kinds of knowledge.
      I’m going to dig out my DVDs of The First Australians and watch it all over again,

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Lisa, Are you able to review ‘Life as Art, the Biographical Writing of Hazel Rowley’ edited by Della Rowley and Lynn Buchanan? Published by Melbourne University Press and released on 2nd July 2021.

    Regards, Della Rowley

    > >  >


    • Hi Della, thanks for getting in touch. I’ve already been contacted by MUP about this book and (because I really like HR’s bios and have reviewed Christina Stead and also Franklin and Eleanor) I hope it does well, but I am snowed under at the moment and finding it especially difficult to review NF because I’ve broken my wrist and can’t take notes. (All this typing is done left-handed). So, I’m sorry, I’ve said no.
      If she hasn’t read it already, Janine from writes excellent reviews, you could try contacting her. Best wishes, Lisa


  5. I’ll be reading this shortly as well.


    • You’ll find it rewarding, I am sure.


  6. Thanks for this great review. I never liked Dark Emu but I’m an archaeologist (albeit not one trained in Australian archaeology) and the flaws were everywhere. Not to mention Pascoe’s assertion that his were original ideas, when clearly they were not. I waited for archaeologists to respond. It’s interesting that early on it was only a historian Tom Griffiths who reviewed the book – critically but sympathetically. I think people feared fuelling a right wing backlash. However – it would be a travesty if Pascoe’s views were embedded in the school curriculum. The book reinforces old stereotypes of ‘progress’ etc. I’m reading Sutton and Walsh at the moment. Also fascinating to see how much Tara Winch’s book ‘the Yield’ references Pascoe. Thanks again for your thoughtful contribution to the debate.


    • Thank you, Judy, I appreciate your comment.
      I admit that even before I read it I felt some trepidation in reviewing this… because (as you say) I was anxious about fuelling a right-wing backlash. Already The Australian is referring to Pascoe’s work as a hoax… I don’t want to do anything that supports that PoV.


      • Heavens! Shouldn’t do this lying in bed with a phone. My tick (like) hit the wrong hand. Aaaagghhhh. I don’t disagree. Not at all. Your comments are insightful – and reflect exactly the dilemma people face. (And I can’t work out how to remove that damn thumbs down – sorry).


        • Oh I can relate, I keep pressing the wrong thing with my left hand, I am so clumsy with it!


  7. Another reminder of just how complex the experience of understanding the past of any given community/group (problematic term, I know) is. There are so many ways to approach knowledge, so many judgements attached, so much at stake for those who have secured reputations for holding particular views or prioritizing particular ideologies. I think the only answer to read more and more and more and think all along the way. :)


    • Yes, absolutely, I see myself on a lifelong learning journey on this, and other issues too.
      I just don’t understand how people can not be reading to do this too!


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