Professor Nicolas Peterson

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, School of Archaeology and Anthropology
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences
T: 02-61254727

Areas of expertise

  • Social And Cultural Anthropology 160104
  • Other Studies In Human Society 1699

Research interests

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.


After three years working as Research Officer in the Northern Territory for the Austrlaian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, as it then was in the late 1960s, I took up a Research Fellowship at the Australian National University in 1971. In 1975 I was appointed to a lectureship in what is now the School of Archaeology and Anthropology also at the ANU. My doctoral reserch had been carried out in northeast Arnhem Land prior to moving to Canberra, where I moved the focus of research to central Australia learning about desert land tenure and its relationship with ceremonial life. The opportunity to work for the Royal Commission in to Aboriginal Land Rights as Research Officer has resulted in a long term commitment to applied anthropology mainly in the preparation of statutory and common law land and sea claims. Recently I have been the foundation Director of the Centre for Native Title Anthropology.  This Centre, established in 2010, has been funded by the Attorney-General's Department, Canberra, to contribute to the professional development of anthropologists working in the native title area and to attract younger scholars into making a career in native title work.  The Centre has been refunded for a further three years till 2025. Emeritus Professor David Trigger and Ms Petronella Vaarzon-Morel are now the Co-Directors of the Centre, but day to day the Centre is run by Dr Julie Finlayson.

Researcher's projects

Reconnecting Warlpiri communities with cultural heritage materials (LP220200211) held withe Dr Gerogiqa Curran (primary investigator), Professor Linda Barwick, Dr Amanda Harris, Emeritus Professor Nicolas Peterson, Professor Clint Bracknell, Associate Professor Myfany Turpin, Ms Endid Gallagher, Mr Karl Hampton, for the period 2023-2026..  The project aims to reconnect Warlpiri communities with past documentation and recordings of their cultural heritage. Centred in Yuendumu, the project expects to unpack the significance of past documentation of cultural heritage for present day Warlpiri people who live in vastly different social worlds from their forebears. Through collaborations with Warlpiri families, and Partner Orgnaisation - Printupi Anmatyerr Warlpiri (PAW) Media and Communications - the project will see the set up of activities to engage with those materials and the production of resources for use by future generations.

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.

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 aimed 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 examined the lantern slides used by the Bible Society in Australia to raise funds for the printing of Bibles in Aboriginal languages.

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 were 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 were the nations reported by earlier anthropologists and the cultural bloc of recent anthropology. This grant provided a PhD scholarship for Mr Tony Jefferies, now Dr Jefferies, as well as research time for 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.

Tthree books have been published from this project. The first appeared 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. A co-edited book by myself and Anna Kenny on "German ethnography in Australia" appeared late in 2017, and in 2018 "Carl Strehlow's 1909 comparative heritage dictionary" transcribed, translated from the German and edited by Anna Kenny was published, accompanied by five introductory essays both on-line and in hard copy.

This project had 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

Pintupi dialogues: reconstructing memories of art, land and
Community through the visual record (ARC Linkage grant LP100200359, 2010-2013).
This ARC Linkage grant was 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 used 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 self-provisioning 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'.

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; 2013; 2015).

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 2003; 2006; 2020).


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Updated:  26 June 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers