(Not by me, all credit goes to original authors of record – Just filleting an interesting article for the good bits. Link to the full article above right.)

By David Shultz    Apr. 22, 2016 , 10:15 AM

A new study, which treats these fables like an evolving species, finds that some may have originated as long as 6000 years ago.

The basis for the new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, is a massive online repository of more than 2000 distinct tales from different Indo-European cultures known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which was compiled in 2004. Although not all researchers agree on the specifics, all modern Indo-European cultures (encompassing all of Europe and much of Asia) descended from the Proto-Indo-European people who lived during the Neolithic Period (10,200 B.C.E.–2000 B.C.E.) in Eastern Europe. Much of the world’s modern language is thought to have evolved from them.

To conduct the study, Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, and colleagues scanned the repository. They limited their analysis to tales that contained magic and supernatural elements because this category contained nearly all the famous tales people are familiar with. This narrowed the sample size to 275 stories, including classics such as Hansel and Gretel and Beauty and the Beast.

But tracing these tales back through time is no easy task. There are scant historical records, and many of the fables began as oral stories that left no written versions. So the researchers used statistical methods similar to those employed by biologists to trace species lineages back through the branching tree of evolution based only on modern DNA sequences.

This approach allowed the researchers to trace certain tales, such as The Smith and the Devil, which tells the story of a blacksmith who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for unmatched smithing prowess, back thousands of years—all the way to the Proto-Indo-European people. If the analysis is correct, it would mean the oldest fairy tales still in circulation today are between 2500 and 6000 years old. Other stories seem to be much younger, appearing for the first time in more modern branches of the language tree.

In a new dispatch, published this month in Current Biology, he ruminates on what allows these stories to stand the test of time. “What really interests me is why these cultural forms exist. Why is it that fairy tales, art, songs, poems, why do these things seem to have such longevity?”