Media Releases

Massive open-access database on human cultures created

July 8, 2016

Toron­to, ON – An inter­na­tion­al team of researchers has devel­oped a web­site at d‑ to help answer long-stand­ing ques­tions about the forces that shaped human cul­tur­al diver­si­ty.

D‑PLACE – the Data­base of Places, Lan­guage, Cul­ture and Envi­ron­ment – is an expand­able, open access data­base that brings togeth­er a dis­persed body of infor­ma­tion on the lan­guage, geog­ra­phy, cul­ture and envi­ron­ment of more than 1,400 human soci­eties. It com­pris­es infor­ma­tion main­ly on pre-indus­tri­al soci­eties that were described by ethno­g­ra­phers in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies.

The team’s paper on D‑PLACE is pub­lished today in the jour­nal PLOS ONE.

“Human cul­tur­al diver­si­ty is expressed in numer­ous ways: from the foods we eat and the hous­es we build, to our reli­gious prac­tices and polit­i­cal organ­i­sa­tion, to who we mar­ry and the types of games we teach our chil­dren,” said Kathryn Kir­by, a post­doc­tor­al fel­low in the Depart­ments of Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy and Geog­ra­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and lead author of the study. “Cul­tur­al prac­tices vary across space and time, but the fac­tors and process­es that dri­ve cul­tur­al change and shape pat­terns of diver­si­ty remain large­ly unknown.

“D‑PLACE will enable a whole new gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars to answer these long-stand­ing ques­tions about the forces that have shaped human cul­tur­al diver­si­ty.”

Co-author Fiona Jor­dan, senior lec­tur­er in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bris­tol and one of the project leads said, “Com­par­a­tive research is crit­i­cal for under­stand­ing the process­es behind cul­tur­al diver­si­ty. Over a cen­tu­ry of anthro­po­log­i­cal research around the globe has giv­en us a rich resource for under­stand­ing the diver­si­ty of human­i­ty – but bring­ing dif­fer­ent resources and datasets togeth­er has been a huge chal­lenge in the past.

“We’ve drawn on the emerg­ing big data sets from ecol­o­gy, and com­bined these with cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic data so researchers can visu­alise diver­si­ty at a glance, and down­load data to analyse in their own projects.”

D‑PLACE allows users to search by cul­tur­al prac­tice (e.g., monogamy vs. polygamy), envi­ron­men­tal vari­able (e.g. ele­va­tion, mean annu­al tem­per­a­ture), lan­guage fam­i­ly (e.g. Indo-Euro­pean, Aus­trone­sian), or region (e.g. Siberia). The search results can be dis­played on a map, a lan­guage tree or in a table, and can also be down­loaded for fur­ther analy­sis.

It aims to enable researchers to inves­ti­gate the extent to which pat­terns in cul­tur­al diver­si­ty are shaped by dif­fer­ent forces, includ­ing shared his­to­ry, demo­graph­ics, migration/diffusion, cul­tur­al inno­va­tions, and envi­ron­men­tal and eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions.

D‑PLACE was devel­oped by an inter­na­tion­al team of sci­en­tists inter­est­ed in cross-cul­tur­al research. It includes researchers from Max Planck Insti­tute for the Sci­ence of Human his­to­ry in Jena Ger­many, Uni­ver­si­ty of Auck­land, Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Uni­ver­si­ty of Bris­tol, Yale, Human Rela­tions Area Files, Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, and City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York.

The diverse team includ­ed: lin­guists; anthro­pol­o­gists; bio­geo­g­ra­phers; data sci­en­tists; eth­no­bi­ol­o­gists; and evo­lu­tion­ary ecol­o­gists, who employ a vari­ety of research meth­ods includ­ing field-based pri­ma­ry data col­lec­tion; com­pi­la­tion of cross-cul­tur­al data sources; and analy­ses of exist­ing cross-cul­tur­al datasets.

“The team’s diver­si­ty is reflect­ed in D‑PLACE, which is designed to appeal to a broad user base,” said Kir­by. “Envi­sioned users range from mem­bers of the pub­lic world-wide inter­est­ed in com­par­ing their cul­tur­al prac­tices with those of oth­er groups, to cross-cul­tur­al researchers inter­est­ed in push­ing the bound­aries of exist­ing research into the dri­vers of cul­tur­al change.”

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Note to media: The study “D‑PLACE: A Glob­al Data­base of Cul­tur­al, Lin­guis­tic and Envi­ron­men­tal Diver­si­ty” can be found at


Con­tribut­ing researchers

Kathryn Kir­by
Depart­ments of Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy and Geog­ra­phy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Fiona Jor­dan
Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy, Uni­ver­si­ty of Bris­tol
+44 (0) 117 954 6078

Michael Gavin
Depart­ment of Human Dimen­sions of Nat­ur­al Resources, Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty
+1 970 491 2970

Rus­sell Gray
Direc­tor, Max Planck Insti­tute for the Sci­ence of Human His­to­ry
+49 3641 686 801

Asso­ci­at­ed pub­lic infor­ma­tion offi­cers

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
+1 416 946 7950

Simon Davies
Press Offi­cer, Pub­lic Rela­tions Office
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions & Mar­ket­ing
Uni­ver­si­ty of Bris­tol
+ 44 (0) 117 928 8086

Mary Guiden
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Coor­di­na­tor
Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty
+1 970 491 6892

Anne Beston
Media Rela­tions Advis­er, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
Uni­ver­si­ty of Auck­land
+64 9 923 3258