Menus Subscribe Search


Grandma, What a Long History You Have!

• November 13, 2013 • 2:00 PM


Mathematical modeling suggests that the tale of Little Red Riding Hood has its origins far back in history.

We all know one fact about Little Red Riding Hood’s family tree: She has—or had—a grandmother. But newly published research suggests her ancestral linage in fact goes way, way back.

Writing in the online journal PLOS One, Durham University anthropologist Jamie Tehrani presents evidence that the popular folk tale appears to share ancient roots with another story still popular in Europe and the Middle East, The Wolf and the Kids.

“This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species,” Tehrani told the university’s public affairs office. “The fact that Little Red Riding Hood ‘evolved twice’ from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.”

The oldest known version of Little Red Riding Hood is an 11th-century poem “written in Latin by a priest in Liege.”

In an attempt to show that one really can trace stories from various cultures to common roots, Tehrani analyzed a series of seemingly related stories to phylogenetic analysis. Developed to trace the relationship between various species, it is used to create a “tree” that traces how, in the course of evolution, certain plants or animals arose from a common progenitor.

“Folk tales represent an excellent target for phylogenetic analysis because they are, almost by definition, products of descent with modification,” Tehrani writes. “Rather than being composed by a single author, a folk tale typically evolves gradually over time, with new parts of the story added and others lost as it get passed down from generation to generation.”

For his analysis, Tehrani focused on 72 plot variables, such as the character of the protagonist and the villain; the tricks used by the villain to deceive the victim; and whether the victim ultimately escapes or is eaten. This allowed him to chart how, over centuries of re-tellings, the stories took shape in their present forms.

The Wolf and The Kids, he notes, concerns a nanny goat who “warns her kids not to open the door while she is left out in the fields, but is overheard by a wolf. When she leaves, the wolf impersonates her and tricks the kids into letting him in, whereupon he devours them.” That tale “evolved from an Aesopic fable which as first recorded around 400 A.D.,” he writes.

In contrast, the oldest known version of Little Red Riding Hood is an 11th-century poem “written in Latin by a priest in Liege.” But Tehrani’s analysis suggests they emerged from a common source deep in history, with various versions branching out and establishing themselves in different cultures.

“The Chinese blended together Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf and the Kid, and local folktales to create a new, hybrid story,” he said. “Interestingly, this tale was first written down by the Chinese poet Huang Zhing, who was a contemporary of (Frenchman Charles) Perrault, who wrote down the first (published) European version of Little Red Riding Hood in the 17th century.”

So what does it tell us that certain stories—albeit with significant variants—are found in a wide range of cultures, and stay popular over the centuries? Tehrani finds them to be “a rich source of evidence about the kinds of information that we find memorable and motivated to pass on to others.”

He notes that Little Red Riding Hood and its related tales share certain key features: “minimally counterintuitive concepts” such as talking animals; “survival-relevant information” such as “the danger presented by predators, both literal and metaphorical;” and “the importance of following a parent’s instructions.”

In other words, these stories are survival guides for kids, presented in language kids can understand.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.

September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.

September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.

September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.

September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel

September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.

September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.

September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.

September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.

September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie

September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.

September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.

August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.

August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.

August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.

August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?

August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.

August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.

August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.

Follow us

Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.