Most people would have heard of the fairy tale of “Little Red Riding Hood”. It is the story of a young girl who wears a cloak and hood made of red velvet, who goes wondering through the forest alone to deliver wine and cake to her grandmother. When she arrives, she is greeted by a ‘Big Bad Wolf’ disguised as her grandmother who ends up devouring her in one gulp. Luckily a huntsman arrives and cuts open the wolf’s stomach, saving both the young girl and her grandmother.
However, we all know that stories and tales can be altered with each telling, transforming over time to become something quite different. In this way, folktales evolve in much the same way as species, taking on new features and dropping others as they spread to different parts of the world.
A group of researchers in Britain have used this feature to trace back the evolutionary tree for Little Red Riding Hood. It may seem like quite a strange choice of research topic, but it was chosen for good reason. By tracing back the origins of the fairytale and studying the ways in which it branched off over time, researchers are able to show how humans migrated throughout history.
“This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species,” Durham University anthropologist Jamie Tehrani explained.
Tehrani studied 58 different versions of the story, which varied according to the number and gender of the protagonists, the ending, and the type of animal or monster that becomes the villain. In some versions, for example, the young girl outwits the wolf and escapes. One story called “The Wolf and the Kids” has been frequently told throughout Europe and the Middle East, while another, “The Tiger Grandmother” is popular in East Asia.
Tehrani found that “Little Red Riding Hood” seems to have descended from the ancestral story known as “The Wolf and the Kids” in the first century AD, and then branched off about 1,000 years ago to become more similar to its present form. However, an African version also originated from the same ancestral story and then independently evolved to become similar to “Little Red Riding Hood”.
“This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations,” Tehrani explained in a statement. “The fact that Little Red Riding Hood ‘evolved twice’ from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.”
The study shows that the fairy tale made a long journey. It evolved as a spoken story in France, Austria and northern Italy before being written down by French author Charles Perrault in the 1600s and was later re-told in its most familiar form by the Brothers Grimm, 200 years ago.
While The Wolf and the Kids – which is popular in Europe and the Middle East – was evolving from spoken word to the printed tale of Little Red Riding Hood in Europe, it travelled south to Africa and eastwards to Asia to become The Tiger Grandmother in Japan, China and Korea.
Dr Tehrani added that applying the technique to other folk tales could reveal how humans migrated throughout history, by tracing the folk stories’ origin in time and geographically.
The research was detailed Nov. 13 in the journal PLOS ONE.
Acknowledgements: April Holloway