Little Red Riding Hood’s closest relative may have been her ill-fated grandmother, but academics have discovered she has long-lost cousins as far away as China and Japan.
Employing scientific analysis commonly used by biologists, anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani has mapped the emergence of the story to an earlier tale from the first century AD – and found it has numerous links to similar stories across the globe.
The Durham University academic traced the roots of Little Red Riding Hood to a folk tale called The Wolf and the Kids, which subsequently “evolved twice”, he claims in his paper, published this week in scientific journal Plos One.
Dr Tehrani, who has previously studied cultural change over generations in areas such as textiles, debunked theories that the tale emerged in China, arriving via the Silk Route. Instead, he traced the origins to European oral traditions, which then spread east.
“The Chinese version is derived from European oral traditions and not vice versa,” he said.
The Chinese took Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Kids and blended it with local tales, he argued. Often the wolf is replaced with an ogre or a tiger.
The research analysed 58 variants of the tales and looked at 72 plot variables.
The scientific process used was called phylogenetic analysis, used by biologists to group closely-related organisms to map out branches of evolution. Dr Tehrani used maths to model the similarities of the plots and score them on the probability that they have the same origin.
Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Kids, which concerns a wolf impersonating a goat to trick her kids and eat them, remain as distinct stories. Dr Tehrani described it “like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species”.
The Wolf and the Kids originated in the 1st century AD, with Little Red Riding Hood branching off 1,000 years later.
The story was immortalised by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, based on a tale written by Charles Perrault 200 years earlier. That derived from oral storytelling in France, Austria and northern Italy. Variants of Little Red Riding Hood can be found across Africa and Asia, including The Tiger Grandmother in Japan, China and Korea.
Dr Tehrani said: “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.”
The academic, who is now studying a range of other fairy tales, said: “This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations.”
He added that the development of the fairy stories could be used to map how humans migrated. “Migration is likely to be the main mechanism by which folk tales spread from society to society,” he said.