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Folktale evolution. A statistical analysis finds that Little Red Riding Hood originates in the Middle East nearly 2000 years ago.

Folktale evolution. A statistical analysis finds that the oldest version of Little Red Riding Hood originates in the Middle East nearly 2000 years ago.

The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood

Does Little Red Riding Hood survive her visit to grandmother’s house? It depends on where you grew up. In some European tellings, the child meets a gruesome end in the jaws of a wolf, but in others she escapes. And in other parts of the world, the victim is a goat rather than a girl, or the villain is a tiger rather than a wolf. Did all of these versions evolve from a single ancient tale? Or have parents around the world independently invented the obviously good idea of terrifying their offspring with tales of child-munching monsters before sleep? By applying a bit of evolutionary biology to the tale, a researcher says he now has an answer.

In the most popular European version of Little Red Riding Hood, a wolf devours an old woman and then imitates her, wearing her clothes and getting into her bed just in time for the arrival of her granddaughter. The tension builds as the girl relays a series of observations to the wolf—“Grandmother, what big ears you have! … What big teeth you have!”—until the animal eats her.

But if you grew up in the Middle East, you might have heard a story called The Wolf and the Kids. Instead of dressing up as a human grandmother, the wolf impersonates a nanny goat before eating her goat kids. Could that tale be the ancestor of Little Red Riding Hood?

Jamie Tehrani heard multiple versions of the folktale as a child and became fascinated by this question. “My father is Iranian, my mother British, and I grew up in Dubai,” says Tehrani, now an anthropologist at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He learned that anthropologists have been trying to trace the origins of the story for nearly 2 centuries. According to one leading hypothesis, the tale originated in China and was brought to Europe along the Silk Road 600 to 800 years ago. But another hypothesis holds that folktales mutate and evolve so quickly that all of these stories emerged and evolved independently from each other; their similarities are due to chance and the universality of a world filled with wild animals and vulnerable children. With so many gaps in the story’s history, the trail has gone cold.

The historical record of the Red Riding Hood-like folktales may be spotty, but researchers have amassed a large collection of the contemporary variations. Those data allowed Tehrani to use phylogenetic analysis, a statistical technique used to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships between species. He started with 58 versions of the tale—all in English translation—from 33 different cultures around the world. Then, just as an evolutionary biologist compares physical traits between organisms to measure their similarity, he scored the differences between the stories using 72 plot points, such as who played the villain, what trick the villain used, and how the story ends. The output of the analysis is a family tree showing the most likely relationships. If the stories did indeed originate in China, then the Chinese version should sprout from the base of the tree, with all other stories emerging as branches off that trunk.

But the evolutionary analysis of Little Red Riding Hood does not support a Chinese origin. Instead, the folktale seems to have emerged almost 2000 years ago somewhere between Europe and the Middle East, Tehrani reports today in PLOS ONE. China most likely adopted the tale from Europe, rather than the other way around. The African versions of the story probably evolved from the Middle Eastern tale, The Wolf and the Kids. And that story appears to be older than Little Red Riding Hood, although one version of the European tale has become far more popular due to its publication in book form 200 years ago by the Brothers Grimm.

“This is an important innovation because despite centuries of scholarship there exist many unresolved questions about the … evolution for different folktale traditions,” says Robert Ross, a psychologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who has studied the origins and transmission of folktales. Still, he says, “I have some concerns about whether or not the particular folktale dataset he has used is appropriate for phylogenetic analysis.” He notes, for example, that only about one-third of the stories that Tehrani included in his analysis are classified by folklore scholars as belonging to the Little Red Riding Hood tradition. For this reason Ross suggests that it is unclear whether or not all the stories included in the analysis have a genuine historical link. To confirm this new evolutionary tale, Ross wants to see if the same pattern holds when more versions of the story are included in the analysis.

*Clarification, 14 November, 5:36 p.m.: An earlier version of the caption stated that Little Red Riding Hood's origin was in the Middle East, but that is not known; the statistical analysis found that the oldest version known originated there.

*Correction, 15 November, 11:40 a.m.: Ross clarified his view on the data’s shortcoming, and this version reflects this.