Ever since the dawn of man, cultures have been riddled with myths, legends and fables – to this day, you can't argue that our societies are greatly shaped by the roots of folklore.
You only have to look to your own childhood to realize how influential fairy tales really are and now, new research has found that humanity's knowledge of such stories extends far further than Brothers Grimm and Disney adaptations such as Beauty and the Beast:
Taking this particular fairy tale into focus, researchers at the universities of Durham and Lisbon have traced its origins back thousands of years. Taking up techniques usually employed by biologists, these academics revealed that the story of Beauty and the Beast was in fact 4,000 years old – that's even older than the Bible!
Indeed, the fairytales we all know and love today are in fact some of the earliest literary records of mankind. Another prominent example being that of Jack and the Beanstalk.
"They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language"
According to anthropologist Dr. Jamie Tehrani, this story is rooted in a group of fables called 'The Boy Who Stole Ogre's Treasure' and can be traced all the way back to a time when humans spoke Indo-European language that are now extinct. This is approximately a whopping 5,000 years ago.
Speaking of the findings, Tehrani said:
"We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written. They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language."
All of this naturally comes as a great surprise because in the 19th century, it was widely assumed that the Brothers Grimm popularized stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White from shared cultural history. They believed that these had trickled down from writers in the 16th and 17th centuries
"They are much older than that"
Yet now, overwhelming evidence suggests that the stories go even further back in time. In total, over 275 stories were examined and Tehrani says:
"Some of [them] go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology - some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts - but our findings suggest they are much older than that."
How did they find this out?
According to a study published in the Royal Society Open Science Journal, anthropologists investigated the relationships between population histories and the information we hold on languages, marriage rites, political institutions and music. Additionally, to try to determine how far back they really go, they looked at how the roots of the Indo-European languages were passed down in various stories and where they were found geographically. Tehrani explains:
"We used a toolkit that we borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods. This enables you to reconstruct the past in the absence of physical evidence. We've excavated information about our story-telling history, using information that's been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance, so in that sense they embody their own history."
"By comparing the folk tales that we find in different cultures and knowing something about the historical relationships among those cultures, we can make inferences about the stories that would have been told by their common ancestors."
So next time you're watching your favorite Disney fairy tale, consider the fact that it was probably known to people who lived an epic 5,000 years ago!