Anthropologists and archaeologists have been doing macrohistory – the study of long-term historical processes – for ages. But macrohistorical analysis, the use of quantitative data and mathematical modeling to study long-term cultural evolutionary and historical processes, is but a decade old.

SFI External Professor Peter Peregrine, who teaches anthropology at Lawrence University, is hosting an invitation-only working group at SFI this week to get macrohistorians’ heads around the vast quantities of data available today.

“We want to sit down with the people of SESHAT [a global history database project sponsored by the Florida-based Evolution Institute] and the Templeton Foundation and other macrohistory people and see if we can come up with a protocol to integrate large sets of data – so that we don’t have to keep recreating the same data sets,” he says. “Our main question is: How can we create something so people can access and employ it?”

Peregrine hopes he and his fellow macrohistory researchers can come up with a common framework for accessing all knowledge about past societies, which has not only been pretty much inaccessible to scientific analysis but inaccessible to other researchers as well – be they historians, anthropologists, sociologists, or economists.

And in line with SFI’s ethos, using macrohistorical analysis to determine whether there are universal features shared by all complex societies isn’t all that different from the various ways used to study physical and biological complex systems.

“These sorts of complex data sets are common – they have similar properties whether they’re biological, physical, or cultural,” says Peregrine. “And if we can apply this analysis to history and culture, it might be very transferable to other disciplines.”

More about the working group here.