Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers is a sophisticated, academic attack on, if not a complete dismantling of, the arguments expressed by Bruce Pascoe in his Dark Emu publication of 2014. Pascoe argued that classical aboriginal society was more sophisticated than present society believed because the evidence showed that they were farming at a level similar to that of European farmers. In reply, Sutton and Walshe ask why the Australian people are so quick to accept that a farming society should be seen as an advance on a hunting and gathering people. By maintaining the tone of a serious academic debate, both groups offer publications that respect traditional aboriginal societies.

Pascoe argued that, in contrast to what most Australians had been taught, the Australian aborigines “practised agriculture, stored food, built and lived in large numbers in substantial dwellings and permanent villages, and sewed clothes” (2). Because the aborigines were living in this manner, it was fitting to maintain that these people had advanced to a level of development that had gone unrecognised. By contrast, Sutton and Walshe take issue with Pascoe’s ideas on the nature of pre-conquest aboriginal society and his notion that “recognisably European ‘settled’ ways of living, focused on material and technical ‘development’ in food production, are in any way to be valued more than the ways of living that existed in Australia before invasion” (2).

Sutton and Walshe lay out the bases upon which Pascoe based his claims. They contend that they are all material measures, more easily grasped than the complexities of aboriginal mental and aesthetic culture i.e. “those highly intricate webs of kinship, mythology, ritual performance, grammars, visual arts and land tenure systems” (3). This gap between the kinds of subject matter each author pursues explains the lack of understanding between the two camps.

Peter Sutton is highly credentialled in the aboriginal world having worked for more than fifty years alongside First Nations People on both sides of Cape York peninsula and in the Australian Outback. Keryn Walshe, the writer of Chapters 12 and 13 brings many years as an academic and professional archaeologist to the discussion.

For many Australians, Pascoe’s book is a “must-read.” However, Sutton and Walshe’s forensic examination of Pascoe’s arguments must surely give organisations like the ABC reason to pause. While much scholarly air is expressed in detailing the truth of claim after claim or disputing one set of facts over another, the fact remains that the educated man in the street is unlikely to have much more than a passing interest in who wins the debate. There is next to no likelihood that today’s citizen will engage in an argument over whether seeds were scattered or planted and watered.

Nor will today’s man in the street sweat over the sources each camp draws on to support an argument. Pascoe draws on records of explorers and early colonists, also citing recent works, including Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Dark Emu leans most heavily on the work of the late historian/ethnographer Rupert Gerritsen. It has been argued that his sources are mainly non-aboriginal. There can be no doubting the experience and knowledge of Pascoe’s opponents.

While Pascoe has enjoyed considerable positive exposure since his book was released in 2014, he now faces a huge number of sharply directed criticisms of his beliefs and research strategies. It seems likely that Pascoe’s ideas will be discredited. Sutton and Walshe’s research is so meticulous as to be unstoppable. In the final analysis, when one school has been declared the winner, who but a few academics will care all that much?

Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?


By Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe

Melbourne UP

ISBN: 978-0-522-87785-4

$34.99; 264 pp


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