The Dying World in Northwest Australia
by Helmut Petri
(With a Foreword by Susan Bradley and Introduction by Kim Akerman)
ISBN 978-0-85905-091-3, (New, 2011), 286pp, 160 x 240, illust., 660g
$45.00 + POST
Prior to leading the Twenty-second Frobenius Expedition (1938-1939), to the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, Helmut Petri had developed a wide range of interests that encompassed the fields of physical anthropology, ethnology, history, prehistory, economics and philosophy.
Petri’s volume Sterbende welt in nordwest Australien, first appeared in 1954 and presents the complexities and the conundrums that appear within the concepts that underpin Ngarinyin religious philosophy. At the time of study and writing Petri envisioned a dim, if not grim, future for the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley as the frontier rapidly encroached. He noted in detail how local knowledge was being rapidly lost, initially as clans diminished or were extinguished and also as new religious cults, based on alien culture heroes and embracing a wider concept of ‘Aboriginality’ replaced the locale specific cults associated with the Wóndjina (Wanjina) and associated beings In his later writings Petri was to acknowledge that the dynamics of cultural change rather than being totally destructive averted stagnation and facilitated cultural renaissance and continuity.
Petri also writes on the Nyigina of the lower Fitzroy River basin, presenting more information on the Nyigina than previously existed at the time. Even in the 1930s Petri was, for various reasons, able to work with only three people that he believed had a more or less full grounding in Nyigina culture.
Petri was to return to Australia after the war, 1954-55, locating himself at Anna Plains Station and also venturing to the Eastern Goldfields and a further ten field trips to the north west between 1960 and 1984.
This translation of Sterbende welt in nordwest Australien reveals the depths of Petri’s grasp of the anthropology of peoples of the north Kimberley. It also balances the work by scholars such as Elkin who focused primarily on social organisation and totemism in the Kimberley.
This work demonstrates that it is imperative that English-speaking scholars realise that this, and other similar early scholarly works in languages other than English, must be considered and digested before it is possible to have a solid grounding in the anthropology of the area.
It is hoped that the descendants of the Ngarinyin and the Nyigina, as well other Aboriginal peoples of the Kimberley view the publication as a memorial to ways of life that although much changed over time, still underpins their identity today.