Harper’s Magazine February 25, 2019
Anthropologist Jamie Tehrani wondered whether he could sort out the genealogy of all the “Little Red Riding Hood” variants—Aarne–Thompson–Uther type 333—with something similar to modern phylogenetics, the DNA-informed statistical method biologists use to construct evolutionary trees of living things. Replacing genes with essential narrative elements, such as type of protagonist (single child or siblings, male or female), tricks used by the villain, whether the protagonist is devoured, whether the protagonist escapes, he has used computer programs designed to analysis DNA to build phylogenetic trees for stories.
The results provided a new resolution to decades of debate regarding the origins of “Little Red Riding Hood.” An ancient story preserved in oral traditions in rural France, Austria, and northern Italy was the archetype for the classic folktale familiar to most Westerners. On a separate limb of the tree, the story of the goats descended from an Aesopian tale dated to 400 ad. Those two narrative threads merged in Asia, along with other local tales, sometime in the seventeenth century to form “Tiger Grandmother.”
A number of stories have been analyzed using this methodology. “The Smith and the Devil” was astonishingly ancient. Multiple iterations—which vary greatly but typically involve a blacksmith outwitting a demon—have appeared throughout history across Europe and Asia, from India to Scandinavia, and occasionally in Africa and North America as well. “The Smith and the Devil” became part of Appalachian folklore, and it’s a likely forerunner of the legend of Faust. Tehrani and Silva’s research suggests that not only are these geographically disparate stories directly related—as opposed to evolving independently—but their common ancestor emerged around five thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age.