An inter­na­tional team of researchers, including an art his­to­rian and a handful of physi­cists, have crunched three giant data­bases that record the births and deaths of notable people to map the geo­graph­ical creep of cul­ture over two millennia.

The study, pub­lished Thursday in the journal Sci­ence, presents an unusual way of tracing the arc of his­tory. In lieu of the more typ­ical approach of dig­ging deep into a dis­tin­guished individual’s life or a par­tic­ular time period, the researchers instead marked the dis­crete begin­ning and ends of thou­sands of notable lives, without regard for who they were or in what domain they had dis­tin­guished them­selves. The people had been included in Free­base, a crowd­sourced data­base of people and two data­bases of artists.

Map­ping and ana­lyzing the many data points left behind by artists, politi­cians, sci­en­tists, and other promi­nent people will, they hope, point to cul­tural and intel­lec­tual cap­i­tals and pro­vide quan­ti­ta­tive evi­dence that will both sup­port his­tor­ical inter­pre­ta­tion and pose new questions.

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