The problem currently for scientists and local authorities that want to monitor these communities is that contact with them is fraught with danger. Without inoculation or inherited immunity, these tribes are highly susceptible to outside infection.
Brazil’s indigenous peoples agency, the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), monitors communities with aircraft, but these are both expensive and frightening for people only familiar with basic technology.
However, a new effort in satellite monitoring may prove to be the solution. Anthropology professor Robert Walker from the University of Missouri, along with colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Austin, have been using commercially-available satellite imagery to track isolated communities.
‘Five villages in the Upper Envira River watershed were picked because FUNAI has been doing overflights in the region for some time now. The information from these was useful since it helped us locate the tribes and provided some estimates of how many people are likely to live in each,’ says Walker.
‘The detail level of the satellite imagery impressive,’ he adds. ‘The fact that we can see the outline of their houses is great, and is useful for making measurements of house sizes.’ The researchers watched one village – called Site H to ensure anonymity – grow from 12 to 28 hectares in just over a year; around 300 people now live there.
‘A lot depends on how you define ‘uncontacted’, but all the groups likely have some form of contact such as seeing airplanes fly over and other brief incidents. I define ‘contact’ as sustained peaceful contact with the outside world. Under this definition they are all uncontacted,’ says Walker.
The next move for researchers is to use ecological characteristics – such as the top of the watershed and distance from roads – from 29 of the isolated villages in Amazonia to help model whereabouts similar communities might be located.
Uncontacted nomadic groups remain an enigma for Walker: ‘We may get lucky with satellite imagery of temporary huts along rivers, but this seems unlikely. All the other potential ways to track them are too invasive.’
‘The long-term goal is continued remote surveillance of these villages over time, to provide vital information that might be useful for conservation purposes,’ says Walker. Satellite imagery could allow government officials and scientists to monitor encroachment from timber smugglers, drug traffickers and colonists into uncontacted peoples’ land.
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine