Charting the Geo-History of Culture

vh720Bigger data gets the bigger picture . . . in this case, the big picture in the form of an amazing visualization of global cultural evolution. In Europe. Things move slowly at the beginning, when the only stars and centers of cultural gravity are Athens and Rome. Watch Europe flicker through the “dark” ages until the Renaissance lights up the map. Of course,  things really get going in the nineteen hundreds with the industrial revolution.

The visualization is the work of Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues. The data for the animation was obtained through the Google-owned knowledge base, Freebase.

Schich’s team used the data to create an animation that starts centuries bc and ends in 2012. Blue dots on a map of the world represent the birth places of notable individuals and red dots the places of their death. With this simple device, and a large data set covering more than 120,000 individuals, the geography and history of global cultural and social evolution emerges in fascinating detail.

An additional layer of information was obtained when Schich’s team viewed their data in the context of data from the Google Ngram Viewer, an application that shows how often certain phrases or words were used in the general literature at a given time. The Ngram data, then, can be used to gain an idea of what topic or theme was on people’s minds at a given historical period, which, in turn, can help identifying trends and events that suggest a change in the importance of a given center of migration over time.


Originally published by Science on: