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The 'evolution' of Little Red Riding Hood

November 13, 2013
Public Library of Science
Evolutionary analysis can be used to study similarities among folktales.

This image shows a maximum clade credibility tree returned by the Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of the tales. Major groupings are labelled by region and/or ATU international type and indicated by the coloured nodes. Numbers beside the edges represent the percentage of trees in the Bayesian posterior distribution of trees in which a given node occurred. The scale bar indicates the average number of changes per character along a given edge.
Credit: Tehrani JJ

Evolutionary analysis can be used to study similarities among folktales, according to new research published November 13 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Jamshid Tehrani at Durham University in the UK.

Since the Brothers Grimm published their compilation of folktales 200 years ago, academics have noted that many plots from those European stories are similar to those from other stories all over the world. For instance, highly similar stories to "Little Red Riding Hood" have been observed in African and East Asian cultures. But whether these stories actually a share a common descent and are indeed the same type of tale has been difficult to demonstrate based on previous approaches.

In this study, the author uses phylogenetic analysis to study relationships among different folktales. Phylogenetics was originally developed to investigate the evolutionary relationships between biological species, by constructing a taxonomy tree that represents relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits. Folktales are an excellent target for phylogenetic analysis because they evolve gradually over time, with new parts of the story added and others lost as they get passed down from generation to generation.

By focusing on "Little Red Riding Hood" and related tales, the author analyzed 72 plot variables, such as character of the protagonist (e.g., single child versus group of siblings, male versus female), the character of the villain (e.g., wolf, ogre, or tiger), the tricks used by the villain to deceive the victim (e.g., false voice or disguised paws), and so on. He found that the African tales are not actually of the "Little Red Riding Hood" type, but instead are related to a tale called "The Wolf and the Kids." East Asian tales did not group with either type but probably evolved by blending together elements of both types of stories.

These finding suggest that phylogenetics can be used to identify distinct groups of folktales spread over wide regions and cultures, which may help us better understand the development and "evolution" of oral narratives in these contexts. Tehrani expands, "Folktales are excellent targets for phylogenetic analysis because, like biological species, they evolve over generations and adapt to new environments as they spread from region to region. Since folktales are mainly transmitted via oral tradition, it can be difficult to study their development using conventional tools of literary analysis, because there are so few historical texts. My study shows how we can overcome these difficulties by using the same approach that biologists have used to fill the gaps in the fossil record.

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Journal Reference:

  1. Jamshid J. Tehrani. The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (11): e78871 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078871

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