The ‘Pascoe Fiasco’: 3 Thoughts on the ‘Dark Emu’ Debate

June 29, 2021 Updated: June 29, 2021


The “Pascoe fiasco” has well and truly been in overdrive since the release of Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s “Farmers or Hunter-Gathers? The Dark Emu Debate,” which expertly points out the many errors in the Dark Emu theory.

The theory put forth by Bruce Pascoe in his 2014 work Dark Emu claims Indigenous Australians were not just hunter-gatherers but were well-versed in sophisticated methods of food production, aquaculture, and land management.

Before Sutton and Walshe’s critique was published, individuals like Peter O’Brien, Andrew Bolt, and Ian Keen also bravely weighed in, daring to challenge a story that has been so fervently and uncritically embraced.

In this article, I do not intend to persuade readers that Aboriginal society, before the British invasion, were not farmers. Nor do I intend to persuade readers that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was sophisticated and highly advanced. The aforementioned people have expertly done this.

Nor am I going to write an article on the back of the good work of those individuals I just mentioned while portraying myself as some expert voice for the people who exposed Dark Emu for its errors.

Too many people have jumped on the bandwagon already, portraying themselves as the “brave” insightful ones who have done the investigation and long hours of analysis exposing Dark Emu.

Some behave as if their tick of approval were significant and have bestowed it on Sutton and Walshe’s work.

Instead, I will discuss: 1) Why I think Dark Emu has been so well received; 2) Why even unlikely sources, such as the left-leaning The Guardian and The Conversation, have been very supportive of “Farmers or Hunter-Gathers”; and 3) Why some Dark Emu fans are slow to acknowledge that the book is full of major errors.

Why Has Dark Emu Been So Well Received?

I think Sutton summed it up best when he was quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald saying, “Reading and accepting Dark Emu has become a search for ‘moral recovery’ for some white Australians of goodwill.”

On the Herald’s Good Weekend Talks podcast, interviewer Greg Callaghan asked: “Is part of the problem our perception there’s a hierarchy of civilisation with agriculture at the top and hunter-gather at the bottom?”

To which Sutton answers affirmatively, saying that, “Dark Emu plays to that view.”

In a 2018 article in The Conversation, Professor Tony Hughes-d’Aeth refers to Pascoe as “an Indigenous historian” who is clearly motivated by a desire to “redress the serial denigration of Indigenous people.”

With commentary and press such as this, is it any wonder Pascoe has taken on hero status?

Further, some people’s response has been along the lines of: “Wow, I always knew the Aboriginal people were smarter than the Whites who invaded them, and Pascoe has proven it.”

I, too, believe they were smarter, but not because they were farmers or builders, but because they were highly skilled hunter-gatherers. In an article in The Guardian, Mark McKenna suggests that “It’s as if the only way we can accept Indigenous Australians as sophisticated is to make them seem more European–honorary whitefellas rather than the highly-skilled ‘complex hunter gatherers’ they were and are.”

Finally, many of those who had their doubts about Dark Emu may have been too afraid to say anything. In the Good Weekend Talks podcast, Sutton acknowledges that there is a fear of being lumped in with the right-leaning Sky News channel if they dare question Dark Emu.

Why Left-Leaning Media Are Welcoming of ‘Farmers or Hunter-Gathers?’

Very simply, because Sutton and Walshe, both highly qualified, have done such an excellent and meticulous job of reviewing Dark Emu.

And most importantly, the authors do so in a “positive spirit.”

Their book is so well written, I cannot envisage any scholar writing in opposition to it any time soon.

Through their motivation to present truth, they have shown the flaws in Dark Emu and still show that traditional Aboriginal people were very intelligent and sophisticated.

In fact, as I have taught psychology students in the recent past, if intelligence reflects a person’s ability to adapt and thrive in their natural environment, then the hunter-gatherer was indeed very intelligent.

Why The Reluctance to Acknowledge Problems With Dark Emu?

This is easily explained by the well-researched psychology theory known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort we experience when holding contradicting beliefs.

A belief most people hold is “I’m intelligent and not easily fooled.” But, after Dark Emu’s debunking by Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers, a second belief soon emerges, which is, “I was fooled.”

Clearly, this second belief does not align well with the first. Human beings do not accommodate contradictory views well.

At this stage, there are two options. First, a person can admit they got it wrong, and to their credit, many people do that.

But if the ego won’t allow this and one has made a considerable investment in believing the myth that Indigenous Australians were agriculturalists, then it is a simple matter for the mind to conveniently dismiss critics of Dark Emu by calling them racist or lumping them with the “Sky News” crowd, Rupert Murdoch, or anything remotely right of centre.

Perhaps in the case of Pascoe, simply referring to Sutton and Walshe’s critique of his book as “a difference of opinion”  is a simple way of avoiding having to say, “I got it very wrong.”

Interestingly, cognitive dissonance theory says that a person can sometimes be even more strongly committed to a belief when faced with opposing evidence. That is, after reading Sutton and Walshe’s book or even reviews of it, it can lead them to believe Dark Emu more strongly, rather than admit they were fooled.

In summation, for as long as political correctness, identity politics, and cancel culture—what I call the evil three—are allowed to flourish and be endorsed by bodies like our national broadcaster the ABC, I don’t imagine Dark Emu will lose any favour with fans in the near future.

In a few years, however, Dark Emu will be seen for what it is—an attempt to win favour (and sales) by presenting the Aboriginal person as a brown version of the European.

Anthony Dillon is a researcher at the Institute of Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Christian University. He has commentated on Australian Indigenous affairs for two decades.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anthony Dillon
Anthony Dillon
Dr. Anthony Dillon is a researcher at the Institute of Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Christian University. He is a regular commentator on Australian Indigenous affairs and has worked in the field for two decades.