Rethinking Australia’s past



 We thank Ngara Institute supporter Theresa Mortimer for her commentary on three books she considers vital to the deepening of our understanding of the place of Indigenous people to country prior to European settlement and dispossession that began more than two centuries ago.

Bruce Pascoe is a prolific Australian indigenous writer.Bill Gammage is an Australian academic historian at the Australian National University. Don Watson is an Australian writer of history, speeches and essays.

As Bruce Pascoe says, there is a desperate need for a revision of our history. In his writing he sets out to counter the official narrative passed down since white settlement; the narrative that uses the myth of Terra Nullius to ignore prior Indigenous possession in order to justify the continued dispossession of Indigenous land.It is a history that ignores not only the stories of Indigenous people themselves, but the accounts and descriptions of the country contained in the diaries, writings and art of Europeans such as Mitchell, Sturt, Leichardt, von Guerard and other early European explorers and settlers.

Don Watson quotes Bill Gammage in discussing Aboriginal land management, that “it‘s hard not to feel that this land lay in a balance and harmony, recovering from floods and fire, evading the worst impact of drought,malleable to whatever the uncertain seasons bring.”

In a time of growing drought crisis currently unfolding in Eastern Australia, Bill Gammage argues: “We have a continent to learn if we are to survive, let alone feel at home. We must begin to understand our country.If we succeed one day we become Australian.”

Above all, long overdue justice will come to the First Australians.

Roy Drew, Ngara Institute


RethinkingAustralia’s past
Theresa Mortimer


Looking at the following three books to find some answers, I’ve concentrated mostly on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black Seeds – agriculture or accident? (2014). Ialso refer to Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia(2011) and Don Watson’s The Bush – Travels in the Heart of Australia(2014).

In International Law 'terra nullius' describes territory that nobody owns, so that the first nation to discover it is entitled to take it over as "finders keepers”. From the time of Captain Cook's arrival, the British Government acted as if Australia were uninhabited. So, instead of admitting that it was invading land that belonged to Aboriginal people, Britain acted as if it were settling an empty land. This is what is meant by the myth of terra nullius.

Dark Emu – Black Seeds – agriculture or accident?  Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu – Black Seeds – agriculture or accident?Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe (born 1947 Richmond, Victoria) is an Australian Indigenous writer, from the Bunurong clan, of the Kulin nation in Tasmania. He has worked as a teacher, farmer, a fisherman and an Aboriginal language researcher.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues against thebelief that Aboriginal people were a hunter-gatherer societywandering willy-nilly through the landscape. This belief led to the European concept of Terra Nullius and has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession. 

The country 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.“Hunter-gatherer societies forage and hunt for food and do not employ agricultural methods or build permanent dwellings, and they are nomadic.”(p12) Evidence shows that Aboriginal people across Australia were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, gathering, storing, building dams, developing irrigation systems and creating fish traps, and often living in permanent dwellings.

Pascoe draws extensively from the journals and diariesof early explorers,surveyors, pastoralists - many names well known to us, who grew up and went to school in Australia - Major Thomas Mitchell, Captain Charles Sturt, Captain John Hunter, Hamilton Hume, Burke & Wills, John McDouall Stuart, George Augustus Robinson - Chief Protector of Aborigines. He quotes them verbatim, as they describe all the signs of a complex civilisation, while viewing their findings through the blinkered lens of appropriation and white superiority. These records and diaries describe systematic agriculture and aquaculture, permanent dwellings, storage and preservation methods. 


Major Thomas Mitchell on one of his exploratory journeys describes what he observes… “the grass is pulled… and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field - we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles.” He continues … “the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread.” (p. 20) 

Captain Charles Sturt, in 1845, saw “grassy plains spreading out like a boundless stubble field, the grass being of the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year…large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks.” (p.31) Mitchell notes that ‘“he whole resembled ground broken with the hoe”. (p.27) He also saw near the Hunter River NSW, “the peculiar furrowed appearance of the land and pondered the cause of this feature”. (p27)

On Coopers Creek, where Burke and Wills starved to death, the explorer McKinlay noted, “The whole country looks as if it had been carefully ploughed, harrowed, and finally rolled.” Burke & Wills’ party found quantities of stored ‘delicious grain and observed vast quantities of nardoo seed waiting to be harvested. Nardoo is a type of fern occurring naturally across Australia, particularly in inland areas. The pods can be ground to a flour and mixed with water to make a dough which can be baked on hot coals into ‘Nardoo Cakes.’

Three months after setting out, Burke and Wills set up a base camp in Coopers Creek and were running out of food. They were offered Nardoo by the local Aborigines and gladly accepted it. It satisfied their appetite and soon after, they began to prepare their own Nardoo, grinding it up and mixing it with water to make a thin paste, as they had seen the local people do.

Despite eating up to "four or five pounds a day between us", as Wills notes in his journal, the two explorers grew weaker and thinner and developed symptoms such as shaking legs and a gradually slowing pulse. On Wednesday, June 12, 1861 Wills wrote... "King out collecting Nardoo. Mr Burke and I at home, pounding and cleaning. I still feel myself, if anything, weaker in the legs, although the nardoo appears to be more thoroughly digested.”

Wills couldn't understand why he seemed to be starving, despite eating so much Nardoo. What he didn't know was that Nardoo contains an enzyme called thiaminase that breaks down thiamine (Vitamin B1), making it unavailable to the body. Typical symptoms of thiamine deficiency - a disease known as Beri-Beri - are tremors of the hands, feet and legs, an enlarged heart and weakness. As your body can't use the food you eat to provide energy to its cells, you slowly starve to death, even if you have enough food.

Wills wrote four days before he died, “Starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as the appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction.”

The tragedy of this story is that Nardoo could have saved Burke and Wills. They failed to add the extra step in the preparation of Nardoo that indigenous people followed. Aboriginal people would roast the spore cases, before grinding them. This simple step of adding heat to the process completely breaks down the thiamine, making it harmless.

Nardoo was such an important food source to Aboriginal people that it was processed in large amounts with so-called 'Nardoo Mills' - sets of flat grinding stones scattered around the edges of water courses such as the Willandra Lakes. Perhaps if Burke and Wills had watched the locals more carefully, they might have survived.

Grindstones were found by Australian Museum and NSW University staff near Walgett, NSW, that date back 30,000 years, making the Aboriginal people there the oldest bakers ever recorded. The Egyptians, the next earliest, didn’t bake until 17,000 BC.

The yam was a crucial plant in the economy of pre-colonial Aboriginal society. Captain John Hunter, captain on the First Fleet, reported in 1788 that “the people around Sydney (were) dependent on their yam gardens.” (p23) The fact that explorers and settlers reported seeing such activity in so many different parts of the country indicate that it wasn’t an isolated technique. Cultivation was a feature of Aboriginal land use.

Since colonisation the yam has virtually disappeared, but a large field of this tuber has been discovered near Delegate in southern New South Wales. By chance sheep have never grazed there and superphosphate has never been distributed, so these unusual conditions allow us to study the yam in conditions similar to those in which traditional Aborigines would have cultivated the tuber.

Storage and preservation of food

There are numerous reports from early exploration expeditions of finding large grain stores. The Burke and Wills party recorded “two granaries, one with about a ton of rice seed stored there in 17 large dishes”. There are innumerable recordings of explorers coming across “the preservation of everything from fish, game, plums, caterpillars, moths, quandong, figs, seeds and nut, among a variety of other foods”. (pp: 44-45) 

Buildings and villages

Mitchell also recorded details of buildings and villages. He writes that he saw “some huts…being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.” (p. 21) Houses and villages were widely observed throughout Australia. Permanent housing was a feature of the pre-contact Aboriginal economy and marked the movement towards agricultural reliance. (p. 73)

Mitchell also wrote about the degradation and destruction of the land and the extinction of various mammals in a very short time under European management. The unusual quality and friability of the soil was reported by many colonists in the first years of settlement. (p25) With the introduction of European animals - sheep, goats, pigs and cattle - the impact of their hooves and the result of grazing meant the soils very quickly hardened and compacted. (p26) The result was the disappearance of native grasses and yams daisy, which was a mainstay of Aboriginal diet.

While Pascoe appreciates the detail and eloquence of Mitchell’s observations; that while Mitchell admired the housing structures and the industry and innovations required to produce them, he recognises that Mitchell reserved his greatest praise for the land and wealth it would afford the conqueror. (pp.80-81) 

Management of water  

Many explorers and early settlers found evidence of dams, irrigation trenches, and large well systems, miles of stream diversion and systematic flooding to prepare the ground for sowing seed. Wiradjuri people in NSW built large dams and then carried fish and yabbies in coolamons over large distances to stock new waterholes. (pp. 38/39)


Aquaculture was well established in Australia long before the first colonists arrived. Major Thomas Mitchell witnessed the massive fish traps on the Darling River at Brewarrina in North West NSW, which some claim are the oldest man-made structures on earth. The Brewarrina fishing system is an example of a large-scale fishing operation but it also reveals the economic and social organisation needed to sustain the fishery. Large numbers of people depended on fishing traps along most inland rivers and the Brewarrina trap was only one of hundreds of such systems. 

The engineering of the water races and pounds was ingenious. A stone locking system was engineered to fix the traps to the bed of the stream which gave them the strength to withstand regular flooding. Specialist nets were used for particular fish and crayfish. Sturt saw a ninety metre net across the Darling River, “of the very finest craftsmanship”. Hume also observed intricate and extensive net making on the Darling River.

Augustus Robinson remarked on the incredibly successful operation of a fish trap at Pambula, on the NSW south coast, as well as whale fishing near Eden, where the Yuin people used interaction with killer whales to herd larger whales into the harbour where they would then be driven into shallow water and harvested by the Yuin who would share the feast not just with neighbouring clans but the killer whales themselves who would receive the tongue.

Pascoe also draws on the work of Bill Gammage, and others as well as his own research to make a strong argument for the reconsideration of our understanding of the way Aboriginal people lived in pre-colonial times.

The reader of Dark Emucan sense Pascoe’s pride in asserting that all these complex systems were managed through stable government that was fundamentally democratic in nature. Elders earned their role through initiation and learning the law: they did not inherit their power or grasp it through conquest. Aboriginal people are born of the earth and individuals within the clan had responsibilities for particular streams, grasslands, trees, crops, animals and even seasons. AsPascoe states ‘The life of the clan was devoted to continuance’. (p145)

The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines made Australi    a, Bill Gammage

The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines made Australia, Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage is an historian and adjunct professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the ANU.

For over a decade, Bill Gammage has examined written and visual records of the landscape of pre-colonial Australia. He found an extraordinarily complex system of land management by Aboriginal peoples, using fire and the life cycles of native plants to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year. His findings rewrite our conceptions of Aboriginal people as nomadic hunters and gatherers.

His research is based on the recorded observations of early explorers and settlers, from Abel Tasman in 1642, James Cook and Joseph Banks in 1770, and also includes the diaries of early explorers – Captain Thomas Mitchell, Captain Charles Sturt and Ludwig Leichhardt among many others. 

In 1770 James Cook, sailing on HMS Endeavour observed ‘the country which we found diversified with woods, lawns and marshes; the woods are free from underwood of every kind and the trees are at such a distance from one another that the whole country or at least a great part of it might be cultivated without being obliged to cut down a single tree”. Sydney Parkinson, Banks draughtsman echoes this ‘The country looked very pleasant and fertile, and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park.’

Cook’s observations of the people were that – ‘They live in a Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition. This, in my opinion, argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys (sic) of Life, and that they have no Superfluities’. (p.309) 

Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage concludes that this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised.

In his bookGammage also uses colour plates of the Australian landscape as depicted by early artists, eg Eugene von Guerard and Joseph Lycett, or through photographs showing a landscape of open woodland.

What the first European settlers found on their arrival was nothing like the dense bushland that we imagine … and suggests that we should learn a new way of land management from the original inhabitants. Since 1788 the European management of the land has had a profound effect – topsoil blows away, hills slip, gullies scour, silt chokes, salt spreads, soil compacts. (p.103) Indigenous people ‘complained of the white men bringing animals into their country that scare away the kangaroo, and destroy the roots which at certain seasons of the year form part of their sustenance’. (p.308) Within 50 years of settlement, without the controlled Aboriginal fires, in many places the open woodlands and park-like landscapes were reverting to dense scrubland. (p.214) 

Gammage’s book refutes the popular image of Aboriginal people, who are still widely stereotyped as careless, ignorant nomads, disorganised, primitive itinerants, immersed in spiritualism, without method or expertise, who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, dependent on luck to survive.

In fact, the opposite is true. Aboriginal people carried out irrigated yam farming, now almost entirely lost, built extensive fish traps and lived in stone buildings. It was a very clever way of existing in a natural environment. Aboriginal people viewed fire as a critical element of the natural world, their burning based on knowledge refined over tens of thousands of years. Their fires were locally based, firmly controlled, carefully crafted toward the needs of the landscape.

Charles Darwin while visiting Australia in 1836, observed –that the ‘woodland is so open that a person on horseback can gallop through it – the scenery was pretty like that of a park. In the whole country I scarcely saw a place without the marks of a fire’. (p.191) 

Aboriginal people did not burn areas with low soil fertility. Those areas were left to generate forests. But they did burn areas with high soil fertility in order to grow many different crops. The ash from the fires gave further fertility to the soil and allowed many plant seeds to regenerate on exposure to heat. The native grasses that grew back also encouraged large herds of kangaroos to congregate.

Once Aboriginal people were no longer able to tend their country, it became overgrown and vulnerable to the hugely damaging bushfires we now experience. And what we think of as virgin bush in a national park is nothing of the kind.

European settlement had a profound effect on the indigenous people. Bill Stanner, an anthropologist, concluded that after colonisation -“When we took what we call ‘land’ we took what to Aboriginal people, meant hearth, home, the source and locus of life, and everlastingness of spirit. Particular pieces of territory, each a homeland, formed part of a set of constants without which no affiliation of any person to any other person, no link in the whole network of relationships, no part of the complex structure of social groups any longer had all its co-ordinates. They had no stable base of life; every personal affiliation was lamed; every group structure was put out of kilter; no social network had a point of fixture left”. (p143

Gammage concludes: “We have a continent to learn, if we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.”(p323)

This bookThe Biggest Estate on Earth, undermines white society’s predominant preconceptions of pre-colonial Aboriginal culture.

The Bush – Travels in the heart of Australia,   Don Watson

The Bush – Travels in the heart of Australia, Don Watson

Don Watson - Among other occupations and activities, was Paul Keating’s speech writer. He was involved with writing Keating’s 1992 Redfern Speech.

Don Watson also writes about Aboriginal management of land in pre-colonial Australia. The land was not ‘an untouched and ‘neglected’ or ‘pristine’ wilderness, but a landscape wrought to the cultural design of the Indigenous people’. (p.73)


The use of fire was an accepted part of life, a keystone to law and ceremony, and vital to their way of life and to control food sources. They burned to encourage growth and to flush out game when hunting. Ludwig Leichhardt describes it as ‘systematic management’. (p.74) The result of this burning is written about in numerous references to the landscape by European settlers and explorers. Its open orderliness and beauty looked like ‘a gentleman’s park’, an ‘English park, a French park, ‘an immense park’, ‘one stupendous park’. (p.73)

He continues, “The Aborigines who made these parks also made wells for people and dams for animals-they had well-won paths. They had ‘villages’ of stone or timber huts sometimes built with mud in the shape of a large beehive”.  (p.73) In his memoirs, Arthur Ashwin, (born 1860) who was variously a drover, prospector, itinerant labourer, and a pastoralist of sorts, came across a ‘niggers township’ in the Ashburton Range, NT, – about fifty small mia-mias surrounded a storeroom two metres high and five metres in diameter. The store held large bundles of spears, large wooden dishes filled with grain seed, netted bags with red ochre, plumbago, white chalk and flint stones. (p.134)

A clan of the Wiradjuri of Western NSW “cultivated the seeds of medicinal plants, fertilised quandong trees, stocked creeks and watercourses with fish and built weirs to contain them; they farmed the swamps, and with their fires maintained grasslands. They managed the land intensely and regulated their harvest of it. In particular they managed water.”(p.258)

After twenty years of white settlement ‘native grasses had disappeared before the sheep and salinity; the hills were ‘slipping in all directions’; and running across the compacted ground, rainwater carried ‘earth, trees and all before it’, and carved out gullies 3 metres deep. (p.89)

The combination of overstocking, drought and rabbits devastated soils and vegetation. Floods washed weeds to the banks of every watercourse and stream. Wind blew them into crops and pasture. Without Aboriginal burning of the land, and with the disappearance of small marsupials that grazed on native seedlings, the existing savannah changed into dense scrubland. (p.274)

Without Aboriginal management much of Australian coastal areas have changed and is now more densely forested than it was before European occupation (p.91).

Don Watson quotes Bill Gammage - with Aboriginal land management “it is hard not to feel that this land lay in a balance and harmony, recovering quickly from flood and fire, evading the worst impact of drought, malleable to whatever the uncertain seasons may bring.

In conclusion Bruce Pascoe argues for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the entrenched, centuries-old notion that pre-European Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers who did not farm the land they occupied.

“The evidence insists that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer tag,”he says. They did build houses, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. (p.156)

This premise is supported by Australian historians Rupert Gerritsen and Bill Gammage in their latest works, but Dark Emu takes it further and challenges the hunter-gatherer tag as a convenient lie promulgated by colonisers who ignored the possibility of prior Indigenous possession of the land, thus Terra  Nullius.

Almost all the evidence comes from original records and diaries of Australian explorers - sources academic historians consider impeccable - and presents new material not covered by others.

Both Bill Gammage and Don Watson quote from original sources that reveal colonists describing Australia as looking like an English park. Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu analyses the reasons why the hunter-gatherer label was still applied to Aboriginal people despite the colonial texts showing an entirely different economy.

In his introduction Bruce Pascoe states that during this period of the British Empire ‘Britain considered their successes in industry accorded their colonial ambition a natural authority, that it was their duty to spread their version of civilisation and the word of God to heathens. In return they would capture the wealth of the colonised lands.

Pascoe asks the questions, “Under the influence of these cultural certainties and feelings of superiority, how would it have been possible for the colonists not to believe that Englishmen were on the steepest ascent of human endeavour? How would it have been possible for them not to believe that the world was their entitlement and their possession of it ordained by their God?”

To him it is clear from reading the journals of the early Australian explorers that “few were here to marvel at a new civilisation; they were here to replace it.”

As Bruce Pascoe sums up, “In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.”

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