News Column

Social Crowdfunding Finds a Place Among Anthropologists

Nov. 19, 2012

Staci Matlock

A Santa Fe Institute researcher wants to test a remote tracking tool that could be used to gather data about isolated South American groups. Anthropologist Marcus J. Hamilton is enlisting the public's help in raising money for the project through a crowdfunding site called Rocket Hub.

Anthropologists interested in the 100 or so groups in the Amazon Basin that remain isolated from a high tech, fast food world have a dilemma -- how to study these ancient cultures without changing them. Yet understanding the groups' movements and how much land they need for daily survival may be the last chance to preserve these few remaining hunter-gatherer groups, Hamilton said.

Hamilton is an anthropologist, archaeologist, musician and outdoor enthusiast who migrated to New Mexico from London. He graduated with a masters and a doctorate in anthropology from The University of New Mexico. His research has been published in Science, BioScience, American Antiquity, PNAS and other professional journals. He has studied human macroecology, the dynamics of cities and markets, and the paleoecology of hunter-gatherers.

Rocket Hub is one of several sites that allow people with low-budget projects to seek financial support directly from the public. Santa Fe Institute approached Hamilton to see if he had a project to try out on Rocket Hub. "The support would be significant for Marcus' specific project, but for SFI it is more of a science communication exercise for us than fundraising," said SFI spokesman John German.

Hamilton posted the project, called Shrinking Horizons: Preserving Peoples' Homes, on Rocket Hub. He hopes to raise $3,000 for the project by the Dec. 15 deadline. He's raised $485 since he launched it Nov. 12. Each NorthStar Trackpack, the device the scientist wants to use, costs about $300. "Our project would test a new method of remote observation using satellite tracking technology and, perhaps, help conserve the landscapes on which these endangered groups depend," Hamilton wrote on the Rocket Hub project description.

Hamilton and his team want to test the tracking devices with the help of the Ache, an indigenous group in northern Paraguay that has been living side by side with anthropologists for more than a century. The NorthStar Trackpack was created to send data from a stationary site. Hamilton wants to see if it will work and be mobile underneath the thick rain forest canopy with the help of the Ache.

"Our plan is to work with the Ache to test a small number of tracking devices incorporated into their pots, baskets, and tools, keeping records of their movements remotely as they hunt, forage, migrate, trade, and interact with other indigenous groups under the rain forest canopy," Hamilton wrote for the Rocket Hub site. "If our pilot project is successful, we hope to propose a way to study the movements of uncontacted people without directly contacting them (i.e.: through the indirect trade of tools and baskets with neighboring indigenous societies.)"

Rocket Hub tracks donations for the project organizers. Donors are called fuelers and get "thank you" gifts based on the level of giving. For Hamilton's project, a $5 donation nets the giver a personal thank you and recognition on Hamilton's project blog. For $100, a donor will receive both of those plus a postcard from Hamilton's research and a small handmade Ache wood carving.

Scientists believe about 100 indegenous groups have had little contact with the outside world. Most of those groups live in the southern lowland rain forests of South America. Like the rain forests around them, the groups are increasingly threatened by development. "They are the silent victims of rain forest destruction, illegal mining, and encroaching modernization," Hamilton wrote on the site.

He provides examples of threats to indigenous groups on the Rocket Hub project description. In Brazil, construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam has lead to the eviction of the Kayapo from their lands, Hamilton said.

Protecting these indigenous groups means providing policymakers and government officials with high quality data about how much land the isolated tribes need to make a living and how they move across a landscape, he said. That type of data isn't new. Anthropologists have been gathering similar information for years, but on the ground, he said. "It usually involves having an anthropologist or a team of anthropologists following a hunter as he does a task," he said. "The idea here is to maximize the quality and quantity of data while minimizing the effort and try to get the best information to help these people."

Hamilton is among the Santa Fe Institute researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines who collaborate on studying complex problems with real world impacts.

Follow his campaign on Twitter @sfi_news. Visit Rocket Hub at www.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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