Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Saturday 23 January |
Saint of the Day: St. Marianne Cope
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

Study shows some of our best-known fairy tales may be 6,000 years old

Chaumurky CC

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 03/10/17

Anthropologists have traced some classic stories right back to the Neolithic Period

A new study published in Royal Society Open Science reveals that Western fairy tales, often credited to the brothers Grimm, may actually be up to 6,000 years old.

Using a massive online repository of more than 2,000 distinct tales from different Indo-European cultures — known as the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index and compiled in 2004 — researchers concur that modern Indo-European cultures (encompassing all of Europe and much of Asia) came from the Proto-Indo European people who lived in Eastern Europe during the Neolithic Period (10,200 B.C. – 2000 B.C.).

The anthropologists conducting the study only included tales that contained magic and supernatural elements, since those would include all the famous fairy tales known today, and they were left with a sample size of 275 stories to study.

An article by David Shultz in Science Magazine explains that tracing such tales back through history is extremely challenging. There are few records and many of our best known fairy tales began as oral stories and weren’t written down for a very long time. From the article:

The researchers used statistical methods similar to those employed by biologists to trace species lineages back through the branching tree of evolution based only on modern DNA sequences. Here’s how it worked: Fairy tales are transmitted through language, and the shoots and branches of the Indo-European language tree are well-defined, so the scientists could trace a tale’s history back up the tree—and thus back in time. If both Slavic languages and Celtic languages had a version of Jack and the Beanstalk (and the analysis revealed they might), for example, chances are the story can be traced back to the “last common ancestor.” That would be the Proto-Western-Indo-Europeans from whom both lineages split at least 6800 years ago (see image). The approach mirrors how an evolutionary biologist might conclude that two species came from a common ancestor if their genes both contain the same mutation not found in other modern animals.

Read more about why Shultz says that it’s more complicated than that. 

Tags:
History
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
1
LUXOR FILM FESTIVAL
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful 1-minute film about...
2
DAD, HOW DO I?
Cerith Gardiner
Meet the dad who's teaching basic skills on YouTube for kids with...
3
Philip Kosloski
What are the corporal works of mercy?
4
MARTIN LUTHER KING
Jorge Graña
Did you know Martin Luther King appreciated the Rosary?
5
PHILIP RIVERS
Cerith Gardiner
Quarterback Philip Rivers' retirement announcement reflects his s...
6
CONSOLE
Philip Kosloski
What are the spiritual works of mercy?
7
couple
Anna Gębalska-Berekets
Couple praises Padre Pio's recipe for a happy marriage
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.