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A photo of a crowd watching children sail boats in a pond near the Eiffel Tower in 1936.

Paris, shown above in a photo from 1936, has been a magnet for migration for the past 500 years.

Photograph by W. Robert Moore, National Geographic

Dan Vergano

National Geographic News

Published July 31, 2014

How do you keep them down on the farm, once they've seen Paris? You don't, suggests a study of 150,000 historical figures that shows cities have long acted as cultural magnets.

The brainy headed away from the hinterlands in the same migratory patterns centuries ago as they do today, finds a Science journal study released on Thursday. (Read "Population 7 Billion" in National Geographic magazine.)

"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?"

In the past decade, some data scientists have looked to science to understand history, borrowing tools from disciplines such as ecology and statistics to answer questions like when (and how) Rome ceded its throne as Europe's cultural capital to Paris. The new study is part of this trend: It offers an extremely detailed look at the cultural movements of the past 2,000 years, pointing to a new data-driven way to conduct historical research and map the migration of people over time. (Related: "The Human Journey: Migration Routes.")

The study combined three large databases of where historical figures, from antiquarians to artists to athletes, were born and died and includes 153,000 locations, from the French Riviera to Hollywood. It encompasses people who lived from 1069 B.C. to A.D. 2012 (the study analysis, however, started with the first century for better statistical reliability).

The study authors used historical figures for the study, rather than aiming to represent the entire population, "because that is the data we have," Schich says. "The poor are simply not as well recorded."

Watch a video of birthplaces (blue) and death sites (red) of cultural figures over time.

Still, a large number of people are included in study, and that is not surprising, says social scientist Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, a pioneer in data-driven historical studies who was not a study author. Until researchers started looking about a decade ago, "we didn't realize how much historical data was out there," he says.

Migration Duration

In addition to finding that many of the same locales that were magnets for migration 2,000 years ago remain hot spots today, the study gives other details of migration patterns, finding the same overall steady movement from the hinterlands to the big city over the centuries.

The distance that people moved over their lifetimes has also changed "very little," the study says, over the past eight centuries. It grew from a typical distance of 133 miles (214 kilometers) in the 14th century to 237 miles (382 kilometers) today, despite the advent of automobiles and airplanes. Schich expected that the opening of the 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometer) trip to the New World after 1492 would stretch the distance much farther.

"People in the past were not so different from us," Schich says, 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," he says, with a laugh.

History Repeats

Turchin says it's important to keep in mind that the study isn't testing a hypothesis—it's merely bringing together data that make observations possible. (Related: "Exploration Timelines.")

"This is a terrific data set, but they are not testing a scientific question here," he cautions. The data don't really tell researchers why Paris waxed while Rome waned, for example.

Schich says the study presents a method of turning demographic data into a broad way of looking at history, scanning the past with numbers in the same way that astronomers roam the stars with telescopes.

When historians see something interesting in the data, he suggests that they can zoom in on it and work to get an explanation of those specific events.

For example, historians might have an explanation for why Hollywood is one of the study's "outliers." The study shows that Tinseltown has ten times as many births as deaths, suggesting that artists have been fleeing the capital of show biz over the past century. Historians might be able to explain whether the film industry's fondness for youthful looks led to the exodus, or may find a better explanation by taking a closer look at the data.

"History still has a lot to tell us," Schich concludes.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

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