Listen: Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe on Indigenous agriculture in Australia

Australia’s first peoples practised agriculture for thousands of years prior to the continent’s European colonialization. Despite these practices being recorded by early explorers, they have been almost absent from Australian historical records until recently.

In the keynote presentation attended by over 220 people for the Faculty’s Research Week 2018, Indigenous writer and anthologist Bruce Pascoe, drew on research from his most recent book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or accident? to illustrate Australia's long history of pre-colonial agriculture.

Awarded the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award in 2016, Dark Emu includes compelling descriptions of pre-colonial Aboriginal agriculture based on accounts from early European explorers. Mr Pascoe argues that Australia must reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ conception of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and answers questions from the audience on a wide range of topics including Indigenous methods, sovereignty and culture.

His insights into pre-colonial Aboriginal systems of food production and land stewardship are highly valuable for researchers and is important to consider in the context of an agricultural nation dependent on introduced crops in a changing climate.

“It’s an extraordinary state of affairs that when the first so-called ‘explorers’ entered many parts of the country, they observed and recorded Aboriginal people engaged in agricultural practice: planting, harvesting, converting the products into food, storage, preservation, all those things we recognise as an agricultural practice,” he said. “And yet our history books refer to none of it. So we’re trying to reverse that by being engaged in the production of these Aboriginal foods.”

This is an area of growing interest in Australia. A starter including kangaroo grass, a native grain found throughout Australia, has been reported to accelerate the baking process and deliver novel results and Mr Pascoe has worked with groups to increase cultivation of native food crops.

Marcia Langton, Bruce Pascoe, Kate Howell and John Fazakerley standing together in front of a timber wall
Left to right: Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies Marcia Langton, Bruce Pascoe, food scientist Kate Howell and the Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences John Fazakerley.

Mr Pascoe discussed research to better understand how kangaroo grass can be used in baking by a food scientist in the Faculty’s School of Agriculture and Food Kate Howell, which he had contributed to; a poster on the subject by Dr Howell received a Best Poster prize during Research Week.

“There’s something going on with kangaroo grass,” he said.

“We don’t completely understand it yet, but all the indications are this is a very important food. People get concerned that its yield per acre is a fifth of the yield for wheat, [but] it’s a perennial plant.

“You’ll never have to have your tractor on that land again to sow, and that will allow the deep roots of kangaroo grass to sequester carbon in the soil. Farmers will be paid to plant… kangaroo grass simply for that fact alone.”

Mr Pascoe also discussed other native food crops and methods including the murnong (sometimes called the yam daisy), a native tuber; the ngardu (nardoo) plant, a water fern also used for flour; and Indigenous aquaculture systems.

Image from above of people gathered in a foyer talking
Guests gather for conversation, food and drinks after the lecture.

He also responded to audience questions on collaborating with Indigenous people as a researcher, cultural burning of the land to revitalise native ecosystems, food sovereignty, preparation methods and his views on a treaty between Australia’s governments and traditional owners.

Mr Pascoe emphasised that though written records were an important resource in his own research and historical research in general, engaging with and speaking with Indigenous Australians about knowledge that has been passed down via elders is vital. In reference to indigenous agriculture in the Western District of Victoria, where New South Wales Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell saw Indigenous murnong crops growing “beyond the horizon, in every direction,” he said:

“We need to learn about that system. I’m a bookish sort of person, so I think ‘literature search.’ But you can’t forget actual discussion with aboriginal people…There are still people around… who remember what [their] Elders did.

“So consult with Aboriginal people, engage in a conversation with Aboriginal people. I’m sick and tired of people saying they would like to help Aboriginal people but they never meet any. If you walk down Bourke Street [in Melbourne] and pass 100 people, three of them were Aboriginal.”

guests with Bruce Pascoe mingling and having their book signed
Bruce Pascoe signs books and speaks to attendees after the lecture.

Story and images by Stuart Winthrope. Banner image: Over 220 people gathered in the auditorium of Trinity College’s Gateway Building for the presentation.