Menus Subscribe Search
little-red-riding-hood

(PHOTO: CIENPIES DESIGN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Grandma, What a Long History You Have!

• November 13, 2013 • 2:00 PM

(PHOTO: CIENPIES DESIGN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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