The intellectual epicenter of Western civilization has expanded dramatically over the past 2,000 years. Once centered in Rome and Athens, culture soon spread out to Paris and London, and, eventually, New York and Hollywood.
In a study published last week in the journal Science, researchers from Northeastern University mapped the dispersal of cultural history across Europe and North America, showing the boom and bust of various regions over time. They tracked the birth and death locations of more than 150,000 intellectuals (culled from several databases, including the General Artist Lexicon, the Getty Union List of Artist Names, and Freebase) in Europe and America over the span of the last two millennia. They then visualized the results by mapping the geographical trajectories of these artists and thinkers over their lifetime, marking birth places in blue and death places in red.
The resulting maps show how Europe’s intellectual center shifted away from Rome to cities throughout Europe, giving rise to hubs like Vienna, Amsterdam, and Berlin. In America, it shows the movement west as intellectual capital dispersed across the continent, expanding from Northeastern cities like New York and Boston to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Some of these cities, the researchers found, are destinations, but not necessarily birth places of culture: Hollywood represented 10 times more deaths than births among the intellectuals studied. Florida, too, lives up to its reputation as a retirement community: It’s primarily red.
While this is a beautiful way to visualize the migration of culture over time, it doesn’t necessarily represent the full scope of the world’s intellectual history. The maps only portray the cultural cachet of locations based on the 150,000 people deemed notable artists and thinkers by these specific databases, leaving out a fair bit of non-European history. (The data on North America doesn’t start until the 1600s, excluding all pre-Columbian intellectuals.) That said, look at the pretty lights!