Emeritus Professor Nicolas Peterson

Emeritus Professor Nicolas Peterson

Position: Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
School and/or Centres: School of Archaeology and Anthropology

Email: Nicolas.Peterson@anu.edu.au

Phone: 02 6125 4727

Location: First Floor, A.D.Hope

Researcher profile: https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/peterson-n

Social organisation, economic anthropology, ritual and symbolism, land and sea tenure, fourth world people and the state, social change and applied anthropology, anthropology of photography, ethnographic film, history of Australian Anthropology, anthropology of native title.

Vitality and change in Warlpiri songs at Yuendumu (Linkage Project LP160100743 held with Professor Linda Barwick the primary investigator, Dr Myfany Turpin, Mr Simon Fisher and Ms Valerie Martin running from 2016-2019). the project seeks to understand the reasons behind the reported decline in knowledge of songs amongst younger generations at Yuendumu in the past 40-50 years.  I will analyse selected songs cycles over time to look at differences in content and interpretation.

Heritage in the limelight: the magic lantern in Australia and the world (Discovery grant DP160102509 held with Dr Martyn Jolly the primary investigator, Dr Martin Thomas, Professor Jane Lydon, Professor Paul Pickering and Dr Joe Kember, running from 2016-2018). The project aims to discover and analyse the large number of glass magic lantern slides that remain under-utilised in public collections. In particular to understand how diverse audiences affectively experienced these powerful forms of early media. I will look at the role that lantern slides played in the early photographic visual literacy of Aboriginal people in central Australia and the uses made of images of Aboriginal people in lantern slide lectures by missionaries and others.

The long-term dynamics of higher order social organisations in Aboriginal Australia (Discovery grant DP140102983 held With Dr Patrick McConvell the primary investigator running from 2014-2016).The two principal aims of this project are to show that the Holocene prehistory of Australia was dynamic, involving signiificant expansion and migration of language groups, and that in such expansion and migration, and resistance to them, higher-order social groupsing were formed.  These are the nations reported by earlier anthropologists and the cultural bloc of recent anthropology. This grant will support a PhD scholarship for Mr Tony Jefferies as well as research by Dr McConvell and myself.

Rescuing Carl Strehlow's Indigenous cultural heritage legacy: the neglected German tradition of Arandic ethnography (ARC Linkage grant LP110200803, 2011-2014). This Linkage grant is held with the Central Land Council and the Strehlow Research Centre, both of Alice Springs. The researchers involved are: Dr Anna Kenny post doctoral fellow; Dr John Henderson, linguist from the University of Western Australia; Michael Cawthorn, Director of the Strehlow Research Centre; Helen Wilmot, anthropologist at the Central Land Council; and myself.

The first results of the is project have just been published with the publication of Dr Anna Kenny's book "The Aranda' pepa" by ANU Press which can be downloaded free in electronic form from the Press's website or bought in hard copy.

This project has three interconnected aims:

* To bring the last major ethnography of classical Aboriginal life into the world of Australian scholarship by setting out its ethnographic significance to Aboriginalist anthropology and in so doing exploring the contribution of the neglected German tradition of humanistic anthropology to contemporary issues and debates. * To repatriate Indigenous intellectual property by collaborating with Arrernte and Luritja speakers to translate Carl Strehlow's unpublished 10,000 word dictionary and other cultural materials currently unavailable to them because of the language and scripts in which they are written, or being research notes and, * To examine the relationship, and sources of difference, between the work of TGH Strehlow and that of his father Carl in the areas of genealogy, territorial organisation, mythology, and totemism as a contribution to reducing contemporary conflict over traditional lands in particular, and to understanding the trajectories of change in Arrernte and Luritja social orders in the 20th century

Carl Strehlow’s seven-volume work on the Arrernte (Aranda) and Luritja, Die Aranda- und Loritja Stämme in Zentral-Australien, is the last ethnography of classical Aboriginal life that has yet to be brought into the wider world of Aboriginalist scholarship. There are several reasons for its neglect. The most obvious is that it is in German and that there is a lack of a published translation because senior Arrernte men are concerned about the amount of restricted information throughout the text. There is also an important academic reason that relates to the history of Australian anthropology. Sir Baldwin Spencer saw Carl’s views on aspects of Arrernte culture as a threat to his ethnographic authority and from as early as 1903 began to attack Carl’s work, and his bona fides as an ethnographer.  Spencer claimed Carl’s reports were tainted by his status as a missionary, but an equally fundamental issue was the difference in intellectual traditions: Carl’s humanistic anthropology was deeply at odds with Spencer’s biologically influenced social evolutionary views.  Spencer’s position as Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, the great acclaim received by his two ethnographies of central Australia, written with Frank Gillen, (1899, 1904), and the wide availability of these two books further combined to completely marginalise Carl’s profoundly rich work.

This project represents a unique opportunity for collaboration between the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University, the Strehlow Research Centre, the Central Land Council and senior Arrernte speakers to make available to both Aboriginal people, and the world of scholarship, the dictionary and other material that are rich in cultural heritage significance for Aboriginal people. This ethnographic material is also highly relevant to understanding the changes that have taken place in Arrernte and Luritja social orders since the beginning of the 20th century, helpful in clarifying issues creating tensions in present day society especially in relation to land, and in enriching the history of Australian anthropology.  

Dr Kenny will work with Arrernte and Luritja linguists to translate the dictionary working from the original manuscript with technical advice from Dr Henderson. She will also write a book on the work of Carl Strehlow. Mr Cawthorn and Ms Wilmot will work on the clarification and elaboration of the genealogies, especially as they relate to land and Professor Peterson will focus on the place of Ronald and Catherine Berndt who were the last exemplars of the German humanistic tradition, until the recent arrival of a wave of new scholars trained in Germany, in the history of Australian anthropology.


Pintupi dialogues: reconstructing memories of art, land and
Community through the visual record (ARC Linkage grant LP100200359, 2010-2013).
This ARC Linkage grant is held with Papunya Tula Artists Ltd and the National Museum of Australia, Professor Fred Myers of New York University, Dr Peter Thorley of the National Museum of Australia, and Ms Philippa Deveson and myself of ANU. Together with the members of the Kintore community we will be using film and photography to reflect on a pivotal period in Pintupi history. In 1964, internationally renowned filmmaker, Ian Dunlop accompanying Jeremy Long, had photographed Pintupi people still living a nomadic life in central Australia's western desert. He returned in 1974 to film these same people, now living at Yayayi outstation where Fred Myers was carrying out his doctoral fieldwork.

People like the Pintupi have been referred to as 'People without History'. Such a view emphasises the difficulty of creating a history when they have no written records of their own. This is culturally compounded by the lack of any notion of a chronological career or biographical narrative among many remote Aboriginal people. Rather, Pintupi lives and past events are encompassed in a rich array of contextually elicited or triggered stories about particular episodes and events. This leads to episodic accounts of the past that obscure the persistence of motivations, the long-term commitment to particular courses of action and the ways people have consistently worked towards specific goals, making their lives seem fragmented, reactive and lacking in clear direction. However, with a layered dialogic approach, incorporating multiple perspectives, it is possible to work collaboratively to overcome these difficulties and create a nuanced and evidence based narrative account of intent and purpose that can bridge this cultural difference in historical consciousness.

Pintupi Dialogues is built around a unique research resource ideally suited to the cultural specificities of the Pintupi historical consciousness:

        - thirteen hours of raw synchronous sound film, shot by internationally renowned
          ethnographic filmmaker Ian Dunlop at the Pintupi outstation of Yayayi in 1974, and

        - over 600 still photographs, taken by Dunlop in 1964 of some of the same people,
          and their parents, when they were living a completely independent traditional life
          'beyond the frontier'.

Using these visual records as the basis for a dialogue between Myers and the Pintupi we will reconstruct an account of how the Pintupi sought to fashion their own modernity, with a particular emphasis on the great transition in their lives that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

Such a history is important to the Pintupi, faced as they are with a burgeoning young population and the rapid disappearance of people who have knowledge of this transition. It will help the younger generation understand what those making the transition struggled for, and how against seemingly insuperable odds, they first got their own outstation at Yayayi, eventually leading to their own towns of Kintore and Kiwirrkura in the remoteness of the western desert. Not only was this a struggle for self-determination but it was also a crucial period when they came to terms with the cash economy by becoming involved in the Papunya Tula art movement. For the project team the history is important for an additional reason: it will be a gateway to examining the origins and development of self-determination as manifested in the outstation movement and the moral and humanitarian concerns behind government policy as it sought a mutual accommodation with Pintupi people.


While the following projects have been formally finished there is on-going work related to each of them by myself, and the other researchers involved in each of the projects, including the doctoral students who have all completed their theses.

Anthropological and Aboriginal perspectives on the Donald Thomson Collection: material culture, collecting and identity (ARC Linkage grant 2003-2006). In conjunction with Museum Victoria, Dr Louise Hamby, post doctoral fellow, and I, from the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University, and Ms Lindy Allen, Senior Curator, from Museum Victoria have been working on the Donald Thomson Arnhem Land Collection made between 1935-43. His Arnhem Land Collection of photographs, objects and notes together form the most comprehensive record of any fully functioning, self-suporting Aboriginal society we shall every have. The project has involved, among other things, digital modes of repatriation, extensive field based documentation of the many hundreds of images, exploration of material culture and ethnotechnology and research on Donald Thomson's place in Australian anthropology. Many Indigenous knowledge holders have been brought down to work at the Museum with the more than 4,500 objects and over 2000 photographs as well. Work related to this project will continue well into the future.

Warlpiri songlines: anthropological, linguistic and Indigenous perspectives (ARC Linkage grant 2005-2007). In conjunction with the Warlpiri Janganpa Association, and the Central Land Council, the School of English at the University of Queensland and the Schools of Music and Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University have a three year research project into Warlpiri songlines. The project combines anthropologists, linguists, musicologists, Indigenous knowledge holders and Indigenous bicultural linguists to record, transcribe and translate many of the cycles of songs that are no longer frequently performed, and, therefore, not being passed on to the younger generations. Warlpiri songs link ancestral power with the landscape, emotions and aesthetics and are central to Warlpiri religious life. The project is creating a cultural archive at Yuendumu informed by indigenous exegesis that is also integrating appropriate aspects into the world of scholarship and eventually providing materials for Warlpiri school curricula. This project includes a postgraduate research student, Georgia Curran, who is working with Warlpiri collaborations over a fifteen month period at Yuendumu, Dr Mary Laughren, Dr Stephen Wild and Ms Anna Meltzer. Key Warlpiri collaborators are Mr Thomas Rice Jangala and Ms Jeannie Egan Nungarrayi.

Other Current Research
Economy and culture: I am interested in the relationship of Indigenous Australian forms of sociality, organisation and economic practices with those of the encompassing nation-state. Currently I am investigating the modernising of the Indigenous domestic moral economy (see 1991, 1993, 2005 and Peterson and Taylor 2003).

Early twentieth century photography of Aboriginal people: In this project I am examining the ways in which Aboriginal people were represented in popular imagery (eg see 2006).

Updated:  15 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications