Lynn Voedisch: Old-time fairy tales older than you think

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Fantastic World

Do you think that “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rumpelstiltskin” are relatively recent fairy tales—going back maybe a couple hundred years?

Some anthropologists and linguists think otherwise. They say that the origins of these and other tales go back some thousands of years, with one—“The Smith and the Devil—going back to the Bronze Age.

“These stories are far older than the first literary evidence for them,” Durham University anthropologist Jamie Tehran told Science News. He explained that when linguists study a language’s evolution, they are tracing grammatical and phonetical structure though time.

Tehrani and Sara Graca da Silva of the New University of Lisbon in Portugal studied 275 magic-based stories. Taking statistical analyses of the relationship between folktales and language left them with 76 stories that they thought could help estimate folktale age.

Four stories had a high probability of being associated with Proto-Indo-European language, the precursor language of Germanic and Romance languages.

Beside being quite sure of the ancient date of “The Smith and the Devil,” the team also found early versions of “Rumpelstiltskin” (then called “The Name of the Supernatural Helper”) and “Beauty and the Beast.” The language-story pairings say the stories originated 3,000 or 4,000 years ago.

“We don’t invent culture anew every generation,” Tehran said. “We inherit a lot of our culture.”

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“Rumpelstiltskin” (left) and “Beauty and the Beast.”

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On March 1, 2016
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