Throughout the history of human cultural evolution, different cities around the world have served as hubs for artists and intellectuals.  Athens, Vienna, Paris, and New York have all acted as magnets at some point in time, attracting talent from around the world. What was it about these places that made them so popular with the cultural revolutionaries? New research from Northeastern University seeks that answer, and also identifies other major cultural centers that have existed in Europe and North America over the past 2,000 years.

The team of scientists used the birth and death locations of over 150,000 intel­lec­tuals to create a map of their migratory patterns throughout the two continents. The paper, published on Friday in the journal Science, shows how a higher number of intellectuals worked and died in these hubs, regardless of where they were born. Athens, for example, was a cultural hub during the fifth century, when some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known lived. By the 10th century, intellectuals were mostly living in Rome, and by the 18th century, many were living in Paris. With many individuals also being born in these hubs, the paper also shows that despite colonization and improvements in transportation, many intellectuals did not travel far from the places they were born to the places they would die in — a notable finding in human migration patterns.

"By tracking the migra­tion of notable indi­vid­uals for over two mil­lennia, we could for the first time explore the boom and bust of the cultural cen­ters of the world," said Albert-​​László Barabási, director of Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research, in a press release. "The observed rapid changes offer a fas­ci­nating view of the tran­sience of intel­lec­tual supremacy."

The study also highlighted that a city’s economic status did not alter its popularity among artists. Even places that were not economic hubs managed to become centers of intellectual congregation. Also, by the 16th cen­tury, there seemed to be two different cultural regimes at play in Europe: One was a "winner-​​takes-​​all" regime, involving coun­tries where an indi­vidual city attracted a sub­stan­tial and con­stant flow of intel­lec­tuals (Paris, for example), while the other was a "fit-​​gets-​​richer" regime, in which cities within a fed­eral region, such as Ger­many, com­peted with each other for their share of intel­lec­tuals — these cities were only able to attract a fraction of the intellectual population. 

The team also found that an average level of attractiveness or culture could not be determined between the various cities. This was because a cities suitability varied over time. For example, while gritty New York City has always been the preferred destination for intel­lec­tuals, it was even more so in the 1920s, when many intellectuals considered for the study were born. Meanwhile, popular places like the Alps, the French Riv­iera, and Hollywood became famous for their appeal and climate, however, few notable figures have come from these locations.  

The team used centuries-old data and vast amounts of literature to accurately design the intellectual migration map. They relied on large data sets such as the Gen­eral Artist Lex­icon, which con­sists exclu­sively of artists and includes more than 150,000 names, and Free­base, which includes the names of roughly 120,000 indi­vid­uals, of whom 2,200 are artists. These methods helped them identify a clear set of geo­graph­ical pat­terns that would not have been recognized using tra­di­tional quan­ti­ta­tive his­tor­ical methods. The third data set, the Getty Union List of Artist Names, was used to val­i­date the results of the other two.

"We're starting out to do some­thing which is called cul­tural sci­ence where we're in a very sim­ilar tra­jec­tory as sys­tems biology for example," said Max­i­m­ilian Schich, asso­ciate pro­fessor in arts and tech­nology at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, in the release. "As data sets about birth and death loca­tions grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more com­plete pic­ture of his­tory. In the next five to 10 years, we'll have con­sid­er­ably larger amounts of data, and then we can do more and better, address more questions."

Source: Schich M, Barabási A, Hel­bing D, et al. A network framework of cultural history. Science. 2014.