Fairy tales could be older than you ever imagined Could your favorite fairy tale be older than previously thought? (Thinkstock)
Fairy tales could be older than you ever imagined
Lexile

A few hundred years ago, fairy tale auteurs like the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault helped bring magical tales of princesses, evil ogres, dark forests, weird spells and thwarted love into the storybooks and to the bedsides of children. But how old are the tales they transcribed? A study suggests that their origins go all the way back to prehistory.
 
A study in the journal Royal Society Open Science says a folklorist and anthropologist believe that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.
 
It's pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are if you use simple historical data. The tales were passed down orally and can be almost impossible to unwind. That is, if you use a historian or anthropologist's traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead. The team used a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists. They traced the roots of 275 fairy tales. The biologists used complex trees of language, population and culture.
Using the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales, a kind of uber index that breaks fairy tales down into groups like "the obstinate wife learns to obey" and "partnership between man and ogre," the team tracked the presence of the tales in 50 Indo-European language-speaking populations. They were able to find the ancestries of 76 tales. They tracked them backward using language trees.
 
As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories and more than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots. Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages, which was more than 5,000 years ago. A tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.
 
The findings might confirm the long-disregarded theory of fairy tale writer Wilhelm Grimm, who thought that all Indo-European cultures shared common tales. But not everyone is certain that the study proves fairy tales are that old. As Chris Samoray writes for Science News, other folklorists are finding fault with the study. It insists that The Smith and the Devil dates back to the Bronze Age. That's a time before a word for "metalsmith" is thought to have existed.
 
Are the days of using historical records and written clues to learn more about a culture's oral history numbered? No way, says the research team. "Of course, this does not diminish the value of excavating the literary record for evidence about the origins and development of oral tales," they write. Researchers will still keep looking for the origins of fairy tales in books, too. In the meantime, it might be time to pick up that once-familiar storybook and dream about who told the same tales thousands of years ago.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can these stories be so old?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (6)
  • jacksonb-kut
    5/22/2016 - 07:46 p.m.

    Cool. I mean, I don't see what's wrong with stories being so old. Most of us have always had an interest in beings and items that don't exist; Or at least don't exist in our knowledge.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    5/23/2016 - 01:22 p.m.

    I love fairy tale stories. They are so imaginative and cool. Its so cool that fairy tales go back much farther than we had originally thought.

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    5/24/2016 - 01:31 p.m.

    Stories can be so old because even though there is no record of anything being written down, they have been passed on orally. These stories, being passed on by mouth, have survived very long.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    6/08/2016 - 04:46 p.m.

    I read many fairy tales but I didn't know that some dated back to five or four thousand years ago. They were passed down orally for many years. Researchers have tried many ways to trace it back. They figured out how to do it by using biology. Language trees were also used to trace them back. They have traced 275 tales. I think that this is amazing because they have been told for so many years.
    I think that these stories can be so old because someone came up with the idea long ago. Then, they have told many people about it and it went down for many generations. This was interesting to learn about because I thought they were young.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    7/31/2016 - 12:28 a.m.

    These stories could be thousands of years old because years ago people passed stories on orally. This means that there would be no written record allowing us to pinpoint the time they came into being. In addition, the stories most likely changed overtime, into the versions we know today. As people told the stories, others relaid them with slightly different story lines, or possibly drew on from one part of the original story to make it their own.

  • alexis3-war
    9/29/2016 - 02:09 p.m.

    I love old fairy-tales! they are so fascinating.

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