We know folklore goes back hundreds of years, but thanks to a new study using biological research methods, we now know it’s even older than that.
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They’ve been handed down from generation to generation in the form of bedtime stories, books, and movies, so we all have a passing experience with them.
Because of this, fairy tales also reflect our cultural history. They showcase what we think about good and evil, morality and punishment. But how old are they? Turns out, a lot older than we thought. By thousands of years!
One of the most famous people to speculate on the origin of fairy tales was Wilhelm Grimm of the Brothers Grimm. You know, the one that looks like Matt Damon?
He argued that the folk tales he and his brother compiled were actually part of ancient oral traditions that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia! Grimm thought these stories were thousands of years old, and marked the beginning of Indo-European language.
Since then, studying folklore has become a full-time job in academia. Some folklorists disagreed with Grimm. They said that since there was little evidence to prove fairy tales’ existence as oral tradition, they probably were only recently invented along with other printed literature.
That was… until anthropologist Jamie Tehrani and folklorist Sara Graça da Silva dropped some science on them in a breakthrough article in the journal “Royal Society Open Science”.
They used tools usually reserved for evolutionary biologists, such as phylogenetic methods that examine the fairy tales’ relationships with population histories, geographical distances and linguistic patterns. The researchers also traced the tales along a “tree” of Indo-European languages to see how far back they went.
Using a massive classification of folk tales called the “Aarne Thompson Uther Index,” they studied common links between 275 stories in the group known as “Tales of Magic.” They focused on these stories featuring the supernatural, because they represented the largest group and included the tales with the most commonly debated origins.
And it worked! They discovered that at least 76 of these fairy tales were being told before English, French or Italian even existed as languages.
“Little Red Riding Hood” originated around 2,000 years ago between Europe and the Middle East.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” (grouped in with a series of tales known as “The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure”) is 5,000 years old.
“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Name of the Supernatural Helper” (aka “Rumplestiltskin”) may have first been written down in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they’re between 2,500 and 6,000 years old!
But what was the oldest fairy tale they found? A story called “The Smith and the Devil,” dating back at least 6,000 years to the Bronze Age, predating the oldest known ancestor of Indo-European languages.
It goes something like this: Once upon a time, a blacksmith sells his soul to an evil supernatural being in exchange for the ability to weld any materials together. Then he uses this skill to leash that darn Devil to an immovable object and get outta the deal!
And all this time you thought that was the plot of Tenacious D’s “The Pick of Destiny.”
What’s even more important is that this discovery could settle a debate about the origin of Indo-European languages. One hypothesis had these languages dating back 9,000 years to the region that’s now Turkey, but that population was neolithic farmers who hadn’t even invented metallurgy yet.
Tehrani and da Silva speculate that, more likely, another idea is correct: Those languages originated 5 to 6,000 years ago in the steppes of Russia.