New insights into the origins and development of folk tales are being provided by the application of scientific analysis that are more commonly used by biologists to produce an evolutionary tree of life diagram.
Dr Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University, England, in his research resolves a long-running debate by demonstrating that Little Red Riding Hood shares a common but ancient root with another popular international folk tale The Wolf and the Kids, although the two are now distinct stories.
Dr Tehrani said that this is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species.
He found that The Wolf and the Kids probably originated in the 1st century AD, with Little Red Riding Hood branching off 1,000 years later.
The Wolf and the Kids , popular in Europe and the Middle East, is a story about a wolf who impersonates a nanny goat and devours her kids, whereas Little Red Riding Hood is about a wolf who devours a young girl after impersonating her grandmother. Variants of the story are common in Africa and Asia, for example, The Tiger Grandmother in Japan, China and Korea.
Little Red Riding Hood was told by the Brothers Grimm 200 years ago but that version was based on an earlier, 17th century, story written by the Frenchman Charles Perrault, which itself derived from an older, oral tradition of storytelling in France, Austria and northern Italy.
Dr Tehrani subjected 58 variants of the folk tales with phylogenetic analysis, a method more commonly used by biologists for grouping together closely-related organisms to form a tree of life diagram, mapping out the various branches of evolution from the earliest life forms.
The analysis focused on 72 plot variables, such as the character of the protagonist (for example male or female, single child or group of siblings); the character of the villain (wolf, ogre, tiger or other creature), the tricks used by the villain to deceive the victim and whether the victim is eaten, escapes or is rescued.
The study has been published in the scientific journal, PLOS ONE.