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.”