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University of Missouri

Satellite Anthropology

Using satellite images to protect indigenous tribes.

satellite image

Documentary satellite images of remote Amazonian villages can help preserve a rare way of life. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

Amazonia’s vast rainforests are home to some of our planet’s most isolated and enigmatic tribes. Narcotraffickers and loggers threaten the existence of these culturally and linguistically unique peoples, says Robert Walker, assistant professor of anthropology. Even well-meaning visitors would likely spread diseases that decimate these small enclaves. With funding from a Mizzou Alumni Association Richard Wallace Faculty Incentive Grant, Walker is using satellite images to take inventory of tribes’ locations and movements. It’s a first step in helping preserve their way of life.

Existing maps of tribes’ locations amount to “rough guesses,” Walker says. “I wanted to get more concrete. I want a time-stamped image and the ability to use satellite technology to measure the villages and make educated guesses about how many people are living there.” With such information, Brazil and other governments with Amazonian lands can increase protected areas around villages and work to keep criminals away.

Walker says taking inventory using satellite images is less disruptive to tribal life than flying low over villages to take pictures. It’s also safer than mounting land expeditions. The images are cheaper, too, he says.

“These are some of the most traditional people in the world, as they haven’t been integrated into the outside world. In terms of understanding cultural and linguistic diversity, they have a lot to offer. We don’t want these people to go extinct. We need to do what we can to protect them.”