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Scientists trace origins of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’

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‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the famous tale was told by the Brothers Grimm 200 years ago

little redLondon: Researchers studying the evolution of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ have found that the popular folk tale shares a common but ancient root with another famed story ‘The Wolf and the Kids’.

Dr Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University, England, found that ‘The Wolf and the Kids’ probably originated in the 1st century AD, with ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ branching off 1,000 years later.

“This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species,” he said. ‘The Wolf and the Kids’, popular in Europe and the Middle East, is a story about a wolf who impersonates a nanny goat and devours her kids, whereas ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is about a wolf who devours a young girl after impersonating her grandmother.

‘Little Red Riding Hood’ was told by the Brothers Grimm 200 years ago but that version was based on an earlier, 17th century, story written by the Frenchman Charles Perrault, which itself derived from an older, oral tradition of storytelling in France, Austria and northern Italy.

Tehrani subjected 58 variants of the folk tales with phylogenetic analysis, a method more commonly used by biologists for grouping together closely-related organisms to form a tree of life diagram, mapping out the various branches of evolution from the earliest life forms.

The analysis focused on 72 plot variables, such as the character of the protagonist (for example male or female, single child or group of siblings); the character of the villain (wolf, ogre, tiger or other creature), the tricks used by the villain to deceive the victim and whether the victim is eaten, escapes or is rescued. Phylogenetics involves a mathematical modelling process that compares similarities between the plot variables and scores them according to the probability that they have the same origin.

“My research cracks a long-standing mystery. The African tales turn out to be descended from ‘The Wolf and the Kids’ but over time, they have evolved to become like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which is also likely to be descended from ‘The Wolf and the Kids’.

“This exemplifies a process to which biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations.” The fact that Little Red Riding Hood ‘evolved twice’ from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.

“There is a popular theory that an archaic, ancestral version of Little Red Riding Hood originated in Chinese oral tradition. It is claimed the tale spread west, along the Silk Route, and gave rise to both The Wolf and the Kids and the modern version of Little Red Riding Hood.”

“My analysis demonstrates that in fact the Chinese version is derived from European oral traditions, and not vice versa,” Tehrani said in the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.


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