The idea of the smart and talented in the hinterlands packing their bags and heading for the city is a well-known trope. But a new study investigating the cultural movements of the past 2,000 years using big data reveals that this is a story as old as time itself.

The study combines three massive datasets about celebrated historical figures who lived from 1069 B.C. to A.D. 2012, and charts their places of birth and death. The study reveals that extraordinary people have been flocking to cities for 2,000 years.

“We can watch Paris become the cultural center in France before 1500, while in Germany many cities become cultural centers,” says study lead author Maximilian Schich of the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson. “And we can ask, why?”

It’s not just the exact locations for migration which have remained fairly steadfast over the centuries. Rather surprisingly, the distance people travel to cultural centres has also changed “very little” over the past eight centuries. The typical distance travelled in the fourteenth century was 133 miles (214 kilometers); today, despite globalisation and unthinkably large advances in travel, the distance has only grown to 237 miles (382 kilometers).

“People in the past were not so different from us,” Schich told National Geographic, noting the records include accounts of Jesuit priests who traveled to China in the 17th century. “It’s very strange to think my odds of moving a long distance are similar.”

Schich is keen to stress that this study looks at the “what”, and not the “why”. “This is a terrific data set, but they are not testing a scientific question here,” he cautions. It does however, provide a map for historians to pan in on, and answer key questions. For instance, given the amount of young hopefuls flocking to Hollywood each year, why is the birth rate there ten times higher than the death rate? Historians may be able to pin this peculiar statistic to Hollywood’s obsession with youth, or find an alternative hypothesis.

“History still has a lot to tell us,” Schich concludes- and with new data processing techniques, we have more ways to uncover these forgotten narratives.

Read more here.
(Image credit: National Geographic)

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