Among the last uncontacted indigenous people in the world are roughly 70 Amazonian tribes who live in isolation, deep in the forests of Brazil and Peru. These tribes present a dire conservation challenge, as they face deforestation and encroachment from the civilized world.

Where and how they move, how many people they represent, and their daily means of subsistence are little-known to governments, and this basic demographic information is essential for developing policies to protect them.

SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Marcus Hamilton and his collaborators at the University of Missouri at Columbia and the University of New Mexico are using remote-sensing technology to advance our understanding of indigenous tribes. 

In a new paper published in Royal Society Open Science, Hamilton and his colleagues use satellite tracking and imagery to understand the demographics and movements of five indigenous villages in the forests of Brazil. Theirs is the first attempt to scientifically study isolated Amazonian tribes from space.

The study offers the five tribes’ population estimates and their living areas and weighs the challenges and benefits of using remote-sensing technology to study uncontacted people. The researchers compare their data with that obtained from overflights, which can be costly and invasive compared to remote sensing. 

“We are probably the last generation to see indigenous subsistence cultures existing in this way, and one of the key pieces of ecological knowledge we need for these indigenous groups is how they utilize their landscapes on a daily basis,” Hamilton says. “This data is very hard to get at without making potentially harmful contact, but if we use current technology to track populations as they move across the landscape, we can find the best way to preserve the habitat.”

Read the paper in Royal Society Open Science (November 5, 2014)

Read the article in the International Business Times (November 5, 2014)

Read the article in Geospatial World (November 6, 2014)