WASHINGTON – “Little Red Riding Hood” may have been heading to her grandmother’s house — but anthropologists wanted to know where she came from and just how her story spread.
By applying a mathematical model used by biologists to study the evolution of species, the researchers were able to create a sort of “evolutionary tree” for the popular folk tale, according to a new study out Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The project, led by Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University, England, was able to show that the story “shares a common but ancient root with another popular international folk tale, ‘The Wolf and the Kids,’ ” he said. “The Wolf and the Kids,” which tells of a wolf that impersonates a nanny goat and eats her kids, apparently came first, originating in the first century A.D. It is popular in Europe and the Middle East. “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which the big, bad wolf eats a little girl after disguising himself as her grandmother, diverged 1,000 years later.
The tale we know was one collected by Germany’s Brothers Grimm in the 1800s, but its roots trace back to oral stories passed down in France, Austria and northern Italy, Tehrani found.
A number of variants of the story are told in Africa and Asia, including “The Tiger Grandmother,” in Japan, China and Korea.
To uncover the history, Tehrani used a method called phylogenetic analysis on 58 variants of the stories, focusing on 72 variables, including whether the main character was a girl or a boy or a group or siblings, whether the villain was a wolf, a tiger or something else, what tricks the villain used and whether the main character is rescued or not. The process involves giving scores to each variable based on the likelihood they have a shared origin. These scores can then be used to craft a tree showing the most likely pathways by which the stories branched out.
“There is a popular theory that an archaic, ancestral version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ originated in Chinese oral tradition” before spreading west, Tehrani said. But the analysis showed that “the Chinese version is derived from European oral traditions,” he said.