January 22, 2016
Next time you settle down to read a bedtime story to your child, you might want to reflect on the following tale….
Once upon a time, in a language now long extinct, your ancient ancestors may have shared the same, or very similar tales with their own children, as they huddled together around an open fire.
Results from a study, published this week, suggest that some of our most popular folktales, such as Beauty and the Beast and Jack and the Beanstalk, have ancient roots (pardon the pun!) which may date back to the Bronze Age—when giant beanstalks covered vast swathes of Europe! For many researchers this is a surprising result; as, previously, most traditional folktales were thought to have originated in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, these results point to an ancient oral tradition in which stories have been passed from one generation to the next for up to six thousand years. Although the characters and settings of the stories may have changed, the plots have remained largely intact; despite a huge diversification in the languages and cultures that now share them. It’s only in relatively recent times that these stories have been finally committed to paper.
As well as the great cultural and historical significance of this finding, folktales also have an important educational value. For example, storytelling is well known to have an important positive influence on language development and comprehension among young children. Many folktales also carry a strong moral message. For this reason, they continue to provide a huge source of inspiration to modern authors. For example, the plot of the Gruffalo is derived from a folktale from China. In an age of rapid social change and technological progress, it is comforting to know that the weird and wonderful imaginings of our ancient ancestors can still educate and entertain and, in some cases, scare the living daylights out of 21st century children!
Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani, 2016. Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales. Royal Society Open Science.
Rob Hodgkison, Harmony at Home Ltd. All rights reserved, 2016.