Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought

(Phys.org)—Common fairy tales were subjected to a phylogenetic study by two academics, who discovered that many of them appear to be far older than previously believed. Sara Gra├ža da Silva, a social scientist and folklorist at the New University of Lisbon, and Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University, describe their linguistic research and the reasons they think at least one fairy tale has roots in the Bronze Age in a paper that was recently published in Royal Society Open Science.

The popularity of fairy tales has spread to various communities across the world; for instance, Beauty and the Beast has been recounted in various forms all over the world. Most of these fairy tales are thought to have been around for many hundred years before they were written down, according to modern linguists and anthropologists. However, according to this latest study, they are actually considerably older than that, with some dating back thousands of years.

The researchers utilized a method often used in biology to reach these conclusions: they constructed phylogenetic trees to track the evolution of language characteristics. They began with 275 magically based fairy tales and reduced them to 76 fundamental tales. Then, trees based on some of the extinct Indo-European languages were created. In doing so, the researchers discovered evidence that some fairy tales, including Jack and the Beanstalk, had their origins in other myths and could be traced back to the separation of the Western and Eastern Indo-European languages, which occurred around 5,000 years ago. As a result, it is obvious that these tales predate the Bible and even Greek myths.

One fairy tale in particular, they note, was very clear. Called The Smith and The Devil, they traced it back approximately 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age. The researchers placed confidence factors on different results, depending on how strong the trees that could be built were. Some were obviously less clear than others, but one fairy tale in particular, they note, was very clear.

The legendary Grimm brothers published several fairy tales in 1812, and Wilhelm Grimm stated that he thought the stories were thousands of years old. That claim was quickly refuted, but the scholars now contend that he was correct the entire time.