Academics have revealed that fairy tales including Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin can be traced back thousands of years, with some even predating the English language.
In the 19th century Wilhelm Grimm, of the famous Brothers Grimm, believed that many of the stories they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.
But later thinkers challenged that view, saying that some stories were much younger, and passed into oral tradition having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The university’s analysis, which is published in Royal Society Open Science, showed that Beauty And The Beast, made famous by the Disney cartoon in 1992, is 4,000 years old
Rumpelstiltskin, the renowned German classic, is also believed to be from the same millennium
Using techniques normally employed by biologists, researchers studied common links between stories from around the world and found some have roots that are far older than previously known.
Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from New University of Lisbon, believed the research has answered a question about our cultural heritage.
She said: ‘We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm.
‘Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.’
The university’s analysis, which is published in Royal Society Open Science, showed that Beauty And The Beast, made famous by the Disney cartoon in 1992, is 4,000 years old.
Jack And The Beanstalk is said to have been rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure
Rumpelstiltskin, the renowned German classic, is also believed to be from the same millennium.
Jack And The Beanstalk is said to have been rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure.
It can be traced back 5,000 years to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split.
And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.
The story which involves a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural ability, then tricking the evil power, is not so well known today, but its theme of a Faustian pact is still current.
The study employed phylogenetic analysis, which was developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between species, and used a tree of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales on it, to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.
Dr Tehrani said: ‘We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written.
‘They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.’
Fairy stories often have themes common to humans throughout the world and through all ages, such as family, betrayal, violence and survival, he said.
And he believes we enjoy the magical element, explaining: ‘I think it is human nature to think about that territory about the edges of what is possible and impossible.’
In the 19th century Wilhelm Grimm, of the famous Brothers Grimm (pictured), believed that many of the stories they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family
Retired German professor Jack Zipes of the University of Minnesota had previously suggested that fairy tales were older than most people thought.
In 2009, when research suggested Little Red Riding Hood was 2,600 years old, he said: ‘Little Red Riding Hood is about violation or rape, and I suspect that humans were just as violent in 600BC as they are today, so they will have exchanged tales about all types of violent acts.
‘I have tried to show that tales relevant to our adaptation to the environment and survival are stored in our brains and we consistently use them for all kinds of reference points.’
SOME OF THE MOST POPULAR FAIRY TALES HAVE BEEN RETOLD IN MANY WAYS, ACROSS DIFFERENT CULTURES, OVER THOUSANDS OF YEARS
Little Red Riding Hood descended from the ancestral story known as The Wolf and The Kids in the first century
Dr Jamie Tehrani led a research team which studied 58 different versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story which found that the original story could date back to 600BC.
Each version varied by number and gender of the main characters, the ending and the type of animal or monster which became the villain.
Some stories suggested the young girl outwitted the wolf and escaped.
Other were entitled differently depending on what part of the world the version was from.
The Wolf and the Kids has been frequently told throughout Europe and the Middle East, while another, The Tiger Grandmother is popular in East Asia.
Little Red Riding Hood descended from the ancestral story known as The Wolf and The Kids in the first century.
It branched off in the early 1000s to become more similar to the storyline which we all know.
However, an African version also originated from the same story and then independently evolved to become similar to Little Red Riding Hood. In Japan, China and South Korea, it became known as The Tiger Grandmother
It evolved as a spoken story in France, Austria and Northern Italy before being written down by French author Charles Perrault in the 1600s and was later retold in its most familiar form by the Brothers Grimm, 200 years ago.
Dr Tehrani said: ‘This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species,
‘This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations.
‘The fact that Little Red Riding Hood ‘evolved twice’ from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.’
Despite being passed down the generations orally, Beauty And The Beast was first written in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Her version was chopped and rewritten by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who published it in Magasin Des Enfants.
The story has been retold, with the very changes few changes to the plot, all over the world.
In 1992 Disney released the film in the UK and it remains one of the most popular fairy tale cartoons to this date. It has also been produced as a show in theatres up and down the country.
The German Rumpelstiltskin story has had many variants even within the United Kingdom.
In England the protagonist was known as Tom Tit Tot, written by Joseph Jacobs in English Tales. North of the border, in Scotland, Rumpelstiltskin was known as Whuppity Stoorie and was published in Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chalmers.
The tale was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 1812 edition of Children’s and Household Tales.
Source: Ancient Origins
Melvin Joel Konner, Professor of Anthropology and of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, believes storytelling and fairy tales could have been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.
In his book, The Evolution of Childhood (2010), he wrote: ‘Even the simplest and most static of human cultures is an engine of inventive mutual influence and change. Furthermore, at least orally, human cultures preserve historical record, imaginative or real, couched in a human language.
‘The past pervades human consciousness to some degree even in the simplest societies, and discussions of past events – narrating, sometimes dramatically, commenting on the narration, challenging points of fact or logic, and co-constructing a suite of stories – occupied many an evening for perhaps 300,000 years, but not for millions of years before that.
‘And while our ancestors were arguing, many ape communities not far away in the forest were making their – yes, traditional – nests and drifting off to sleep.
‘The only modern apes that have learned language learned it from human teachers, and none of their wild counterparts has anything like it.
‘Even if their individual minds preserve some private history, it is difficult to see how they could have a collective one without being able to tell it to each other and to their young. All human cultures can, do, and probably must.’