Once upon a time, bedtime stories were recited, instead of read, and the oral tales were told and passed down from generation to generation. In Europe, many were put to paper in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. But according to new research, some of the most famous fairy tales—including Beauty and the Beast, The Spirit in the Bottle, Snow White, and Rapunzel—are much older, dating back thousands of years.
The Guardian reports that researchers used phylogenetic analysis to find common threads between 275 Indo-European fairy tales. This technique is more commonly used in biology to analyze molecular data and find relationships between things that share a common ancestry. By applying it to the study of the stories, anthropologist Jamie Tehrani and folklorist Sara Graça da Silva were able to get a better understanding of their origins.
While previous research suggested Beauty and the Beast and Rumplestiltskin were inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, the researchers found that the stories' origins go further back. In a paper published in Royal Society Open Science, da Silva and Tehrani write, "Both tales can be securely traced back to the emergence of the major western Indo-European subfamilies as distinct lineages between 2500 and 6000 years ago and may have even been present in the last common ancestor of Western Indo-European languages." One story from the researchers' analysis, titled The Smith and the Devil, may be as much as 6000 years old, dating to the era when metallurgy began to emerge.
These tales "have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed," Tehrani told The Guardian. "The motifs present in fairytales are timeless and fairly universal."
The enduring tales have added more to society than entertainment, according to da Silva: "Ultimately, despite being often disregarded as fictitious, and even as a lesser form of narrative, folk tales are excellent case studies for cross-cultural comparisons and studies on human behaviour, including cooperation, decision making, [and so on].”
[h/t: The Guardian]