This animated map, based on research by art historian Maximilian Schich and a team at the University of Texas at Dallas, traces the place of birth and death of more than 100,000 eminent figures in Western cultural history. With births mapped in blue and deaths in red, it appears, as the narrator says, “a little like a map of budget airline destinations.” It’s more beautiful, however, than those pages at the back of Sky magazine. And it’s an educational, if limited, look at the migratory patterns of Western thinkers and the shifting of cultural centers across cities and continents.
To develop their data set, Schich’s team relied on Freebase, Google’s “community-curated database of well-known people, places, and things.” Information is contributed by community members and rounded up from sources like Wikipedia, meaning that, as with any crowd-sourced effort, it should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Underlying data aside, the result is a moving image of 2,600 years of scientists, scholars, and artists traipsing the globe like so many ants, seeking out more culturally stimulating anthills.
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.