What We Can and Can't Learn From 2,000 Years of Migration Data for 'Western Intellectuals'

Researchers recently compiled birth and death data for famous North Americans and Europeans.

A visualization project profiled in the most recent issue of Science aggregates migration patterns of European and North American intellectuals over the last 2,000 years. Viewed all at once, it provides a fast-paced look at the historical emergence of cultural centers across both continents:

To get the 150,000 names (birth and death dates, too) used in the visualizations, the researchers used three main data sets; Freebase.com, the General Artist Lexicon, and the Getty Union List of Artist Names.

In a way, the project confirms what we already know: Rome was the center of western culture from the Roman Empire to the 1700s, while Paris gained international prominence soon after. Once the industrial revolution took hold, the United Kingdom saw an explosive amount of migration into its cities, as seen in blinding white lights in the animation below:

The more deaths than births of 'notable individuals' a city has, the more likely it serves as a hub for such people. A good example would be Hollywood, a place that, the researchers note, saw more than 10 times as many deaths as births among the names studied. The western world's 'notable individuals' of the 14th century died an average distance of 133 miles from their birth city. But thanks to cars and planes, today's now die an average of 237 miles from where they were born.

In the U.S. migration visualization below, we can watch the West Coast attract more and more people from the East as car ownership grows and commercial aviation emerges:

Of course, devoting such a study to only 'notable individuals' of Europe and North America leaves out all sorts of people; most people, in fact.

The visualization of North American migration, for example, suggests the continent was uninhabited until Colonial times. The reason for the omission of so many kinds of people is quite simple: "[t]he poor are simply not as well recorded," one of the researchers, Maximillian Schich, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in arts and tech­nology at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Dallas, tells National Geographic

What we see in these videos is an example of how powerful data visualizations can be. But when it comes to charting thousands of years of world history, they're still only as good as the records researchers can access. 

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