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The history of human culture was captured in a five-minute video created by Cultsci.net. Or was it? The video maps the movement of notable figures in history over the past two millennia. In so doing, it professes to have created a visual of the entire pattern of human culture.
The video map was created by art historian Maximilian Schich and his team based at the University of Texas. The entire project is titled A Network Framework of Cultural History. The team pulled information from Freebase to map the births and deaths of 150,000 historical figures. It is interesting to note that Freebase is owned by Google. According to the abstract of the accompanying report published in the journal Science, “The resulting network of locations provides a macroscopic perspective of cultural history…”
The graphic purports to be the history of human culture – but it would be much more accurately titled the history of western culture. Forget Egypt or Mesopotamia. Despite quite a bit of information about these ancient cultures, the map begins with the Roman Republic circa 600 BCE. One of the earliest figures is Solon, a Greek lawmaker and poet, who was born in Athens in 637 BCE and died in Cyprus in 557 BCE. The idea is that by looking at where people are born and where they end up, the researchers can track the growth and spread of cultural centers throughout history. Blue dots are used for births and red dots for deaths. The more red an area becomes the more important its role in cultural history.
The map appears to chart the continuous spread of the Greco-Roman culture throughout Europe, to the Far East, and to the Americas – namely the United States. It is very interesting to see how cities were abandoned after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and then people began returning to city centers in the Middle Ages. From the data it is easy to see why France became a single nation with a strong central government and Paris as its capitol, and why Germany became a collection of nation-states until unified in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck. To watch how ideas moved with people from these European cities–centers for learning, art, science and free thought–to all corners of the world is intriguing.
There are some key cultures missing, though. Where are the ancient Chinese and their civilizations along the Huang He and the Yangtze River? Where are the ancient Japanese, or Africans, or the intrepid explorers of the South Pacific? Where is the long history of India or the Middle East? What about the great civilizations of Southeast Asia or the Americas?
The map definitely does not show the entirety of human culture. It shows one branch of human culture which through technology, abundant food and determination, was able to spread around the world. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, wrote “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”
When people look at only one chain or one idea of human culture they are propagating the lopsidedness of history. The notable people who are tracked by the map are only important because their descendants were the winners in global conflicts. Diamond describes these confrontations between peoples: “Much of human history has consisted of unequal conflicts between the haves and the have-nots.” Therefore, the map shows western intrusion into Japan and Australia and other parts of Asia. It ignores the First Peoples of the western hemisphere and instead mentions the migration of George Washington’s father.
Diamond explains in his book, “The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas.” This is why the focus of the map is damaging. In trying to track cultural patterns of Europe and North America, the researchers are leaving out other important parts of the world and skewing perspective. When the world is constantly looked at from a euro-centric point of view, it minimizes billions of humans and their place in history and current events. Even common maps can be damaging to peoples in Africa, India, South America and Asia. The idea that the northern hemisphere should always be on top is not an accurate representation of the round earth, but a way to constantly reinforce a hierarchy of place. A Gall-Peters projection map, or, worse, a south-up map, can cause strong reactions in people who do not want their image of the world altered. Even NASA photographs of the earth from outer space have been re-oriented when published so that they look “right-side-up.”
Despite its claims, “to derive historical trends of cultural centers beyond the scope of specific events or narrow time intervals,” Schich’s map shows only very specific cultural trends. It may be that Schich had unbalanced data from which to draw, or it could be a purposeful focus on, “the cultural narratives of Europe and North America.” On the other hand, watching the growth and spread of cultural ideas over 2,600 years in five minutes is fascinating. It is amazing to watch the blue dots stream west across America after the advent of cars. Jared Diamond stated, “The rate of human invention is faster, and the rate of cultural loss is slower, in areas occupied by many competing societies with many individuals and in contact with societies elsewhere.” Schich’s map supports Diamond’s analysis. Cultural centers are found where many types of people are coming together and sharing ideas. Cultural development depends on diversity. However, the map does not illustrate that diversity fully because it focuses on the spread of euro-centric culture. World culture is better defined with a larger mix of ideas and knowledge.
The goal of Schich and his team was to look at the spread of culture as a whole instead of limiting their view to specific events or small time periods. The portrayal of 150,000 people and their ideas moving across the world is astonishing, but was the history of human culture captured in a five-minute video? Only a small part of it.
Opinion by: Rebecca Savastio