Shortlist year: 2022

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: Melbourne University Press

Australians' understanding of Aboriginal society prior to the British invasion from 1788 has been transformed since the publication of Bruce Pascoe's 'Dark Emu' in 2014. It argued that classical Aboriginal society was more sophisticated than Australians had been led to believe because it resembled more closely the farming communities of Europe. In Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe ask why Australians have been so receptive to the notion that farming represents an advance from hunting and gathering. Drawing on the knowledge of Aboriginal elders, previously not included within this discussion, and decades of anthropological scholarship, Sutton and Walshe provide extensive evidence to support their argument that classical Aboriginal society was a hunter-gatherer society and as sophisticated as the traditional European farming methods. 'Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?' asks Australians to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal society and culture.

About the author


Professor Peter Sutton FASSA

Professor Peter Sutton FASSA 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.

About the author


Dr Keryn Walshe

Dr Keryn 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.

Judges’ comments

While many Aboriginal Australians were appalled by Bruce Pascoe's 'Dark Emu' it took seven years for a full response from the Academy. Anthropologist Professor Peter Sutton and archaeologist Dr Keryn Walshe last year responded to a publishing phenomenon with hard facts, life-times of expertise and science. Although 'Dark Emu' won literary awards and garnered a place on some school curricula for its children's version, 'Young Dark Emu', many Aboriginal people saw the flaw in Pascoe's development of earlier works by Bill Gammage and Rolf Gerritsen that had examined Aboriginal land management techniques. Sure, the Old People may have known more about how to manage their land than earlier generations of white Australians understood. But the Old People were of the land. They were part of it through their Dreaming stories. Their traditional increase ceremonies had nothing to do with European attitudes to the creation of wealth and the taming of the land. Yet Pascoe's was a world where Aboriginal people were judged more kindly because they too seemed to have the need of Europeans to master their environment and create prosperity. 'Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate' is a rigorous take-down of a work that has somehow made white Australians feel good about themselves by making Aboriginal life seem more European. Sutton is a highly respected anthropologist and his earlier work on Aboriginal Australia, 'The Politics of Suffering', is a classic. In this book he and Walshe challenge their disciplines in the academy, correct 'Dark Emu's' misuse of the historical record of the early explorers and, most importantly, explain Aboriginal life as it really was without using Pascoe pejoratives such as "primitive" to describe the complexity of the Aboriginal world.