Alison Abbott explains the genesis of the above video, which depicts 2,600 years of cultural change:
Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues used the Google-owned knowledge base, Freebase, to find 120,000 individuals who were notable enough in their life-times that the dates and locations of their births and deaths were recorded. The list includes people ranging from Solon, the Greek lawmaker and poet, who was born in 637 bc in Athens, and died in 557 bc in Cyprus, to Jett Travolta – son of the actor John Travolta – who was born in 1992 in Los Angeles, California, and died in 2009 in the Bahamas.
The team used those data to create a movie that starts in 600 BC and ends in 2012. Each person’s birth place appears on a map of the world as a blue dot and their death as a red dot. The result is a way to visualize cultural history – as a city becomes more important, more notable people die there.
Mark Byrnes cautions:
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.
Eliza Berman adds:
The video and accompanying article, which appear in Nature, an international science journal, have generated some criticism on Twitter, since Nature fails to qualify the phrase “visual history of human culture” with the words “Western” or “European.” Still others question how much the places where a man—and these are mostly men—was born and died can really tell us about cultural history.
These critiques are valid, and perhaps they’ll be addressed as Schich’s team releases further research. But if we take the video for what it is and nothing more—a mesmerizing view of the migrations of people whose contributions Western culture values—it’s a compelling look at the interplay between culture and geography.