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August 15, 2014

Databases Used to Trace Western Migrations

George Leopold

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas used three databases of “notable individuals” over the last 2,000 years to trace western migration patterns.

While Rome remained the cultural center of the European continent through the early Middle Ages, the researchers also found that Paris, locations in what is now the Netherlands and northern Italy were among the emerging cities that attracted European intellectuals and those elites who’s birth and death records made it into the databases.

According to the authors of a paper published in the journal Science, “The emergent processes driving cultural history are a product of complex interactions among large numbers of individuals, determined by difficult-to-quantify historical conditions.

“To characterize these processes, we have reconstructed aggregate intellectual mobility over two millennia through the birth and death locations of more than 150,000 notable individuals. The tools of network and complexity theory were then used to identify characteristic statistical patterns and determine the cultural and historical relevance of deviations.

“The resulting network of locations provides a macroscopic perspective of cultural history, which helps us to retrace cultural narratives of Europe and North America using large-scale visualization and quantitative dynamical tools and to derive historical trends of cultural centers beyond the scope of specific events or narrow time intervals.”

The editors of Science noted that the researchers “developed a tool for extracting information about cultural history from simple but large sets of birth and death records. A network of cultural centers connected via the birth and death of more than 150,000 notable individuals revealed human mobility patterns and cultural attraction dynamics.

“Patterns of city growth over a period of 2,000 years differed between countries, but the distribution of birth-to-death distances remained unchanged over more than eight centuries,” the editors noted.

Eventually, data analysis and visualization showed that European populations crossed the English Channel and began settling what is now southern and central England. Recent research published in National Geographic magazine revealed that separate populations appeared to have settled in a fertile archipelago off the northern tip of modern-day Scotland known as Orkney as far back as 5,000 years ago.

Evidence for that settlement is based on the discovery of Stone Age tools and carved stonework structures that closely resemble Stonehenge. Stonehenge is believed to date back to about 2500 B.C.

The University of Texas research, titled “A network framework of cultural history,” also illustrates how big data analysis techniques can be applied to study human migrations that led to large cities and regional hubs.

According to the researchers, mobility has not risen as much as expected over the last two millennia. They found that median physical distance between birth and death locations in Europe increased by only about 105 miles over seven centuries to about 237 miles.

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