Using techniques from evolutionary biology, scientists have traced folk stories back to the Bronze Age.
(Note: This is for the word nerds out there, from a fellow nerd. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the history of the development of English. This is a bit off that track, but it’s related.)
Stories evolve. As they are told and retold to new audiences, they accumulate changes in plot, characters, and settings. They behave a lot like living organisms, which build up mutations in the genes that they pass to successive generations.
This is more than a metaphor. It means that scientists can reconstruct the relationships between versions of a story using the same tools that evolutionary biologists use to study species. They can compare different versions of the same tale and draw family trees—phylogenies—that unite them. They can even reconstruct the last common ancestor of a group of stories.
In 2013, Jamie Tehrani from Durham University did this for Little Red Riding Hood, charting the relationships between 58 different versions of the tale. In some, a huntsman rescues the girl; in others, she does it herself. But all these iterations could be traced back to a single origin, 2,000 years ago, somewhere between Europe and the Middle East. And East Asian versions (with several girls, and a tiger or leopard in lieu of wolf) probably derived from these European ancestors.
That project stoked Tehrani’s interest, and so he teamed up with Sara Graça da Silva, who studies intersections between evolution and literature, to piece together the origins of a wider corpus of folktales. The duo relied on the Aarne Thompson Uther Index—an immense catalogue that classifies folktales into over 2,000 tiered categories. (For example, Tales of Magic (300-749) contains Supernatural Adversaries (300-399), which contains Little Red Riding Hood (333), Rapunzel (310), and more amusing titles like Godfather Death (332) and Magnet Mountain Attracts Everything (322).
Tehrani and da Silva recorded the presence of each Tales of Magic to 50 Indo-European populations, and used these maps to reconstruct the stories’ evolutionary relationships. They were successful for 76 of the 275 tales, tracing their ancestries back by hundreds or thousands of years. These results vindicate a view espoused by no less a teller of stories than Wilhelm Grimm—half of the fraternal duo whose names are almost synonymous with fairy tales. He and his brother Jacob were assembling German peasant tales at a time of great advances in linguistics. Researchers were unmasking the commonalities between Indo-European languages (which include English, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, and German), and positing that those tongues shared a common ancestor. In 1884, the Grimms suggested that the same applied to oral traditions like folktales. Those they compiled were part of a grand cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia, and many were probably thousands of years old.
Many folklorists disagreed. Some have claimed that many classic fairy tales are recent inventions that followed the advent of mass-printed literature. Others noted that human stories, unlike human genes, aren’t just passed down vertically through generations, but horizontally within generations. “They’re passed across societies through trade, exchange, migration, and conquest,” says Tehrani. “The consensus was that these processes would have destroyed any deep signatures of descent from ancient ancestral populations.”
6 Replies to “How Old Is Your Favorite Fairy Tale?”
Stories. In a way they’re alive, because we create and tell them. I saw this article earlier this week, and I have to say…it’s not only the word nerds who are drawn to this.
It brings to mind the concept of cultural transmission –the wY craft techniques or other valuable knowledge passes from generation to generation. Here, biological concepts like mutation come into play…innovation, novel interpretation of thematic elements.
But when you get into language, something curious occurs. That rate of mutation slows dramatically. We who have always had writing lack the fundamental background to appreciate true memorization. But in the study of pre- and proto-literate societies, you come across cultures that can recite, verbatim, a score of generations, complete with extended genealogy and lifetime merits/honors. In these cultures, story assumes a totally awesome place, a weight of import utterly alien to cultures such as ours.
Take the thesis from your blog entry, and then couple it with the idea that formalized “languages” are a relatively new thing–along with Nation States. For most of our history, we’ve had a patchwork of variations that resembled their nearest neighbors–a motley continuum of sorts. In this context, the utter antiquity of fairy tales, which help people cope with fear of death or disempowerment, and serve as a context to explain forces or places considered magical, is no less cool, but it is more expected.
Whoa. Sorry for the novel. I hope all that makes sense.
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Fairytales are mirrors, imo, but mirrors to mindsets that span years, cultural and social divides. They’re fascinating and they are disappearing or morphing into another medium I can’t identify. I can only take easy guesses at what the fairytales of today are.
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I wonder at the stories that are made into movies and seem to be rehashes of the same old stories. It’s like we have lost the ability to create our own myths and fairy tales. Maybe that’s why society is so fractious, because we sense that we’ve lost a connection to the myths can connect us.
Could be. We have identified so many factions of people within society, within sexuality, within mental health that it has possibly removed us so far from the commonalities of being human but that shouldn’t stop a writer’s inspiration, should it? There must be a good reason – they’re too long! We’ve lost long attention spans and the time to read. That actually makes more sense to me. Perhaps fairytales have to be reduced to memes size.
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I blame mass media and advertising, but all is not lost. This may be a conversation for another time, but I think our schools need to be more challenging, and bring back in the literature and histories that show our children where things came from. That’s been lost in the last 40 years, and our collective imaginations are starving.
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