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
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A few hundred years ago, fairy tale writers 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.
 
The new study has been published. It is in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In it, a folklorist and anthropologist say 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. It was thought 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. That is, if you use simple historical data. The tales were passed down orally. They can be almost impossible to unwind. That is, if you use a historian or anthropologist's traditional toolbox. 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. 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. That 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. He 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?
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COMMENTS (85)
  • michaely-6-bar
    5/19/2016 - 06:51 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because it wasn't just when you were told it was even before the person that told you. For example I could get told a fairytale by my mom or dad and I may think it's been around as long as they have lived. But truly it was even longer because someone had to tell them first. I never really thought about this so in depth before. But now I really know fairly tales where actually longer than when you were told. Now I truly understand fairy tales were really long ago,not like 8 years long more like 100 years.

  • nicholass2-eag
    5/19/2016 - 06:53 p.m.

    I think that they could be that old because they could be made from real events but the ogre,princess,exc,exc could be people in life

    • caiw-pet
      2/27/2017 - 10:34 a.m.

      I agree nicholas2-eag. People have to have an inspiration and the ogre, dragon,etc. They could be people one experienced in real life or an animal they saw in the woods like the wolf or three bears house.

  • jacks-6-bar
    5/19/2016 - 07:00 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because they have probably required much development and that they are diverse. The article states that fairy tales "bring magical tales of princesses, evil ogres, dark forests, weird spells and thwarted love into the storybooks and to the bedsides of children." Since there is so many obscure components that are found in fairy tales' literature, it obviously would have to have some sort of development that could help incorporate these wondrous characters into such stories. Each idea and character from fairy tales seems completely unrelated and with different concepts behind them; a random author and a couple hundred years of revise and adaptions still could not have forged such a creative style. The fairy tales needed more interpretations, add-ons, and especially time in order to receive more development and input from other cultures with different thoughts to forge such a spectacle of converging ideas.
    The fair tales are also quite diverse. The article states: "Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages. That was more than 5,000 years ago." If fairy tales mingle among different countries and regions of different tongues, then it would be lengthy for the story to be made. Places would have to have more time for it to get this diverse; for the story to physically travel around the world by any means (and, since fairy tales were made before the Transportation Revolution, it would be quite lengthy to do so.) The fairy tale must have had significant time for its making as it evidently had many cultures adding to and changing it, all of which live in physically different places.
    I found the article interesting; I had no idea a simple fairy tale could survive for four to five thousand years, let alone a few hundred!

  • williamb-4-bar
    5/19/2016 - 07:01 p.m.

    Stories are so old because they are stories which means that they've had to come from somewhere and someone. Stories can date back to about 5,000 years and they get this old from people just talking, so as long as people talk we can have more stories to tell.

  • jennaw-1-bar
    5/19/2016 - 07:46 p.m.

    in this article we were in about a book that is a found that has fairytales. But this book is not resent it is hundreds of years old. The stories in the book that they found is many many many many many years older than the fairytales that we are hearing now days. But how come the story to be so old? That is exactly what we learn in this article. These stories were written by our ancestors or at least passed relatives. Do you stories have moved on and this is proving how long they have been living. Something interesting I learned in this article is that nobody knew that these fairytales were trace back this far

  • colek-1-bar
    5/19/2016 - 07:56 p.m.

    These stories can be very old because the tales are brought down from older generations to younger generations. The stories were passed down like an inheritance to the next generations, but since there was not technology,"The tales were passed down orally." (paragraph 3). When the parents of a child told the story to them, the child might have grown up and told the tale to their offspring. This created a chain reaction of parents telling their offspring the tale until finally it was written down and eventually published. That is how the stories can possible be so old. I thought this article was interesting and found that the fairy tales that almost everyone knows can be so old surprising.

  • sethg-2-bar
    5/19/2016 - 08:14 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because they were passed down orally through generations of people. The fairytales are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. As family members grew old, they would share the same stories they heard as a kid passing down the tradition. That is how the stories can be so old. I found this article very interesting because I like learning about ancient things.

  • taylorp-1-bar
    5/19/2016 - 08:19 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because they were based off of an older source. On paragraph 5 it states, "As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories." I enjoyed this article because I never really thought about how old fairy tales were.

  • lilyr-4-bar
    5/19/2016 - 09:31 p.m.

    The stories can be so old because they were passed down from generation to generation. This is shown where it says, "The tales were told orally. They are almost impossible to unwind." I found this article interesting because I love to read.

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