The sci­en­tific ex­plo­ration of Aus­tralia’s north was poly­glot and multi­na­tional, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

To­wards the end of 1938, while lead­ing the Frobe­nius ex­pe­di­tion to north­west Aus­tralia, the Ger­man an­thro­pol­o­gist Hel­mut Petri had a strange ex­pe­ri­ence. He was stay­ing at the na­tive sta­tion of Munja, near the head of Wal­cott In­let in the far north Kim­ber­ley: re­mote, for­bid­ding ter­rain. He spent the af­ter­noon in deep con­ver­sa­tion with Munja’s Abo­rig­i­nal spokesman Yao­bida, go­ing over sev­eral of the com­mu­nity’s so­cial prob­lems.

That same evening his ex­pe­di­tion col­league Dou­glas Fox came rid­ing back to Munja from Brock­man Creek, well to the north, and told Petri that while there he had dis­cussed the very same ques­tions, at the same time, with the same Yao­bida. The two ethno­g­ra­phers were shaken by this dis­cov­ery.

“A ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion is hardly pos­si­ble,” Petri wrote. He al­ready knew that in­dige­nous Aus­tralians be­lieved the medicine men or ma­gi­cians among them — and Yao­bida was one — had the power to ma­te­ri­alise their dou­bles, or al­ter egos, and hence to be, and act, in two dif­fer­ent places at the same time. “No im­me­di­ate sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion of­fers it­self,” Petri noted. “In my opin­ion, we have to ac­cept it as it is.”

This is quite a sen­tence for a ra­tio­nal re­searcher in the mod­ern mid-20th cen­tury to have dared to for­mu­late in such calm, ac­cept­ing fash­ion, let alone set down in print: there is re­ally noth­ing else quite like it in the Aus­tralian an­thro­pol­ogy of that era. Petri’s pa­per, with his ac­count of this episode, un­known in this coun­try un­til now, has at last been trans­lated and pub­lished in a land­mark col­lec­tion, Cologne to the Kim­ber­ley, a vol­ume that fills in a large miss­ing jig­saw piece in the story of an­thro­po­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the Aus­tralian fron­tier.

How did we build up our knowl­edge of the far reaches of the con­ti­nent: the sa­van­nas and the ranges, the plains and deserts, their wildlife, their peo­ples and the belief sys­tems that held sway there? To a strik­ing de­gree, we have rewrit­ten our past and re­moved al­most all mem­ory of the Euro­pean sci­en­tists and an­thro­pol­o­gists who helped open up this world.

Few now know the work of the Ger­man ge­ol­o­gist and fos­sil col­lec­tor Erhard Eyl­mann, who made re­peated ex­pe­di­tions through the red heart be­tween 1896 and 1912, or the pi­o­neer Nor­we­gian nat­u­ral­ist Knut Dahl, who ex­plored the Top End’s wild rivers by dinghy and wrote a ma­jes­tic ac­count of his ex­pe­ri­ences there. The sci­en­tific ex­plo­ration of the north was poly­glot and multi­na­tional, and went down broader av­enues than those pur­sued by Bri­tish-trained re­searchers.

The com­piler of this col­lec­tion, Kim­ber­ley spe­cial­ist Kim Ak­er­man, sug­gests that “the Euro­pean trained an­thro­pol­o­gists and lin­guists cast a wider net, one that em­braced eco­nom­ics, ma­te­rial cul­ture and rock art”. This body of work has long been in shadow, be­cause Aus­tralia has be­come “a mono­lin­gual na­tion”.

It is now com­ing into the light thanks to the ef­forts of Hes­pe­rian Press, which pub­lished in 2011 a trans­la­tion of Petri’s bleak mas­ter­piece The Dy­ing World in Western Aus­tralia and brought out Swedish ethno­g­ra­pher Eric Mjoberg’s bizarre Fitzroy Val­ley ex­pe­di­tion jour­nal the fol­low­ing year. With the ap­pear­ance of Petri’s The Aus­tralian Medicine Man and Mjoberg’s Amongst Stone Age Peo­ple in the Queens­land Wilder­ness — which, de­spite its ti­tle, is an ex­tended love song to trop­i­cal rain­for­est Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture — a de­tailed as­sess­ment of this coun­ter­cur­rent in the study of north­ern Aus­tralia be­comes pos­si­ble at last.

To­gether, these ti­tles sketch out a dis­tinc­tive ap­proach to the in­dige­nous do­main. Euro­pean sci­en­tists and in­ves­ti­ga­tors tended to see clear par­al­lels be­tween their own re­li­gious and his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tions and the rem­nant Abo­rig­i­nal cul­tures they found in fast-paced dis­so­lu­tion all around them. Aus­tralian observers tended to adopt a more ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­proach. They had colo­nial eyes; they felt a bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Abo­rig­ines were thus al­ways for them a prob­lem to be man­aged and re­solved, through some dis­tinct path­way of pol­icy, whether in­te­gra­tionist, as­sim­i­la­tion­ist or sep­a­ratist.

Many among the Euro­peans were in­clined to draw close to the bush in­dige­nous men and women they knew. There was Fa­ther Joseph Bischofs, who took part in cer­e­mo­nial dances The Aus­tralian Medicine Man By Hel­mut Petri Trans­lated by Ian Camp­bell Edited by Kim Ack­er­man Hes­pe­rian Press, 206pp, $55 Cologne to the Kim­ber­ley: Stud­ies of Abo­rig­i­nal Life in North­west Aus­tralia by Five Ger­man Scholars in the First Half of the 20th Cen­tury Edited by Kim Ak­er­man Trans­lated by Mar­garet Pawsey Hes­pe­rian Press, 384pp, $70 Amongst Stone Age Peo­ple in the Queens­land Wilder­ness By Eric Mjoberg Trans­lated by SM Freyer Edited by Asa Ferrier and Rod Ritchie Hes­pe­rian Press, 421pp, $110 with his flock when the act­ing su­pe­rior at the Kim­ber­ley mis­sion of Bea­gle Bay; there was the dash­ing Ger­man Pal­lo­tine priest Ernest Worms, a dec­o­rated Iron Cross vet­eran whose chief love in life was re­mote field­work; the Petris, too, Hel­mut, a re­nais­sance man whose high cul­tural back­ground guided his ap­proach to the Abo­rig­i­nal world, and his wife, Gisela PetriO­der­mann, who de­voted her last years of wid­ow­hood to the in­dige­nous peo­ples of the far north­west.

These re­searchers plunged very deep. Worms, who re­mains al­most un­known out­side spe­cial­ist cir­cles, col­lected vi­tal records of Kim­ber­ley le­gends and be­liefs: cre­ation sto­ries, jus­tice rites and cer­e­monies, nar­ra­tives that re­veal the rain­bow ser­pent’s cos­mic sig­nif­i­cance. Hel­mut Petri de­vel­oped a com­plex un­der­stand­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal sa­cred ob­jects and their place in the psy­chol­ogy of their own­ers. He was so cap­ti­vated by the fig­ure of the tra­di­tional healer, or medicine man, that he de­voted an en­tire mono­graph to the sub­ject. It was the fruit of his Frobe­nius years and it fo­cused on the magic prac­tices he en­coun­tered among the three main lan­guage groups of the north Kim­ber­ley: Worora, Un­garinyin and Unam­bal.

This is a so­cial land­scape Ak­er­man knows well, and he can tes­tify to the con­tin­ued vi­tal­ity of the magic doc­tors in re­cent times: “My own ex­pe­ri­ences in re­la­tion to medicine men, heal­ers and sor­cer­ers in north­west­ern Aus­tralia and the desert re­gions in­di­cate that in some in­stances many in­di­vid­u­als can and do em­ploy some forms of magic for both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive rea­sons — suc­cess in love, hunt­ing or gam­bling for ex­am­ple, or to di­rect pain, flood, famine or pesti­lence, as re­quired.”

A hand­ful of field­work­ers have fol­lowed Petri, and in cen­tral Aus­tralia over the past decade a soft-fo­cus en­thu­si­asm for the heal­ing arts of the tra­di­tional medicine man has sprung up, and found a de­gree of main­stream recog­ni­tion — but these ap­plied tra­di­tions are far from the hard, cold, dis­qui­et­ing world of magic trans­port Petri doc­u­ments for the Kim­ber­ley.

The doc­tors he knew in the far north were men of power: they were sum­moned to their call­ing in a se­quence of dreams. A night vi­sion of wa­ter, pan­danus and pa­per­bark meant one’s spirit was trav­el­ling to­wards higher realms. These ini­tial signs were rou­tinely fol­lowed by an en­counter with the rain­bow ser­pent in all its glory: it was a be­ing of im­mense size, with a snake’s body, hu­man limbs and a crest of bright feath­ers on its head.

In this vi­sion­ary ex­pe­ri­ence, as Petri re­ports in his text, the magic man finds him­self trans­formed. His or­gans are re­placed with acute sen­sory re­cep­tors, he re­ceives a new brain and white quartzite crys­tals are put into his body. For days he lies in a swoon, un­con­scious, as the ser­pent be­ing’s plan is re­vealed to him, and he be­comes con­scious of his tasks in life. On wak­ing, a bright­ness ra­di­ates within him, a sense of light­ness fills him. He learns to see the fu­ture and to un­der­stand the past; he comes to sense things far away, he gains the fa­cil­ity to travel out­side his body, he sees en­tire worlds be­yond.

He has the power to heal sick­nesses, he can shape-shift and bring rain. Above all else he be­comes a poet of dance and song, whose com­po­si­tions come to him in dreams. Life lies open



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