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.