A research paper just published in the open access journal, “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales,” has confirmed that some fairy tales have roots dating back thousands of years. The researchers, Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, show that common fairy stories and legends not only resemble each other across languages and cultures, but show signs of being handed on down through history from the same original root.
The authors explain: “We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age.”
These new insights were unearthed using “methods that were initially developed in biology and have been recently employed to investigate the relationships between population histories and a number of cultural phenomena, such as languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture, and music.” The researchers applied these to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales, which groups folk and fairy stories according to over 2000 tale types shared across over 200 societies. Out of the “Tales of Magic” chosen for their sample, the researchers found that four types, including ‘The Smith and the Devil’ and ‘The Boy Steals the Ogre’s Treasure’ (see the Arthur Rackham illustration above) probably dated back as far as the last common ancestors of the Indo-European linguistic and cultural group, linked “to archaeological and genetic evidence of massive territorial expansions made by nomadic pastoralist tribes from the Pontic steppe 5000–6000 years ago.”
“We anticipate that future studies in this area will not only shed new light on the origins of fairy tales, myths, legends and other types of traditional narrative, but also offer novel and complementary perspectives on archaeological, genetic and linguistic reconstructions of the past,” the authors conclude. So there should be many more fascinating discoveries to come from the realm of myths and legends. Meantime, when you’re reading your kids a bedtime story, bear in mind that you may be passing on a cultural legacy dating far back into the prehistoric past.