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"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


The “evolution” of Little Red Riding Hood

Nov. 15, 2013
Courtesy of Public Library of Science
and World Science staff

Ev­o­lu­tion­ary anal­y­sis can be used to study si­m­i­lar­i­ties among folk­ta­les, ac­cord­ing to new re­search pub­lished Nov. 13 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

Since the Broth­ers Grimm pub­lished their com­pila­t­ion of folk­ta­les 200 years ago, aca­demics have not­ed that many plots from those Eu­ro­pe­an sto­ries are si­m­i­lar to those from oth­er sto­ries all over the world. For in­stance, very si­m­i­lar sto­ries to “Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood” have been found in Af­ri­can and East Asian cul­tures.

But wheth­er these sto­ries ac­tu­ally a share a com­mon de­scent and are in­deed the same type of tale has been hard to determine.

In the stu­dy, Jam­shid Tehrani at Dur­ham Uni­vers­ity in the U.K. used “phy­lo­ge­net­ic” anal­y­sis to study their rela­t­ion­ships. Phy­lo­ge­net­ics was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped to probe ev­o­lu­tion­ary rela­t­ion­ships among liv­ing things, by build­ing a “tree” that rep­re­sents rela­t­ion­ships of com­mon an­ces­try based on shared traits.

Folk­ta­les are an ex­cel­lent tar­get for phy­lo­ge­net­ic anal­y­sis be­cause they evolve grad­u­ally over time, Tehrani said, with new parts of the sto­ry added and oth­ers lost as they get passed down over genera­t­ions.

Fo­cus­ing on “Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood” and re­lat­ed ta­les, he an­a­lyzed 72 “plot vari­ables,” such as char­ac­ter of the prota­gonist (e.g., sin­gle child ver­sus group of sib­lings, male ver­sus fema­le), the char­ac­ter of the vil­lain (e.g., wolf, ogre, or tiger), the tricks used by the vil­lain to de­ceive the vic­tim (e.g., false voice or dis­guised paws), and so on. 

He found that the Af­ri­can ta­les are not ac­tu­ally of the “Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood” type, but in­stead are re­lat­ed to a tale called “The Wolf and the Kids.” East Asian ta­les did not group with ei­ther type, he added, but probably evolved by blend­ing el­e­ments of both types.

These find­ing sug­gest that phy­lo­ge­netics can be used to iden­ti­fy dis­tinct groups of folk­ta­les spread over wide re­gions and cul­tures, which may help us bet­ter un­der­stand the de­vel­op­ment and “ev­o­lu­tion” of oral nar­ra­tives, Tehrani said.

“Folk­ta­les are ex­cel­lent tar­gets for phy­lo­ge­net­ic anal­y­sis be­cause, like bi­o­log­i­cal spe­cies, they evolve over genera­t­ions and adapt to new en­vi­ron­ments as they spread from re­gion to re­gion,” he ex­plained. “S­ince folk­ta­les are mainly trans­mit­ted via oral tra­di­tion, it can be dif­fi­cult to study their de­vel­op­ment us­ing con­ven­tion­al tools of lit­er­ary anal­y­sis, be­cause there are so few his­tor­i­cal texts. My study shows how we can overcome these dif­fi­culties by us­ing the same ap­proach that bi­ol­o­gists have used to fill the gaps in the fos­sil record.”

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Evolutionary analysis can be used to study similarities among folktales, according to new research published Nov. 13 in the research journal PLoS One. Since the Brothers Grimm published their compilation of folktales 200 years ago, academics have noted that many plots from those European stories are similar to those from other stories all over the world. For instance, very similar stories to “Little Red Riding Hood” have been found in African and East Asian cultures. But whether these stories actually a share a common descent and are indeed the same type of tale has been difficult to demonstrate. In the study, Jamshid Tehrani at Durham University in the U.K. used “phylogenetic” analysis to study relationships among folktales. Phylogenetics was originally developed to probe evolutionary relationships among living things, by building a “tree” that represents relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits. Folktales are an excellent target for phylogenetic analysis because they evolve gradually over time, Tehrani said, with new parts of the story added and others lost as they get passed down over generations. Focusing on “Little Red Riding Hood” and related tales, he analyzed 72 “plot variables,” such as character of the protagonist (e.g., single child versus group of siblings, male versus female), the character of the villain (e.g., wolf, ogre, or tiger), the tricks used by the villain to deceive the victim (e.g., false voice or disguised paws), and so on. He found that the African tales are not actually of the “Little Red Riding Hood” type, but instead are related to a tale called “The Wolf and the Kids.” East Asian tales did not group with either type, he added, but probably evolved by blending elements of both types. These finding suggest that phylogenetics can be used to identify distinct groups of folktales spread over wide regions and cultures, which may help us better understand the development and “evolution” of oral narratives, Tehrani said. “Folktales are excellent targets for phylogenetic analysis because, like biological species, they evolve over generations and adapt to new environments as they spread from region to region,” he explained. “Since folktales are mainly transmitted via oral tradition, it can be difficult to study their development using conventional tools of literary analysis, because there are so few historical texts. My study shows how we can overcome these difficulties by using the same approach that biologists have used to fill the gaps in the fossil record.”