Thursday, January 21, 2016

The phylogeny of European folk tales

Royal Society Open Science

Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani
Published 20 January 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150645


Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

1. Introduction

Recent investigations into the evolution of cultural diversity suggest that relationships among many languages [1–4], social behaviours [5–7] and material culture traditions [8–10] often reflect deep patterns of common ancestry that can be traced back hundreds or even thousands of years. In this study, we explore these relationships in a universally important and richly documented cultural domain: storytelling [11,12]. Theories concerning possible relationships between storytelling traditions and the descent histories of populations have a long pedigree, and were central to the concerns of pioneering folklorists in the nineteenth century. For example, Wilhelm Grimm argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia: ‘The outermost lines [of common heritage in stories] … are coterminous with those of the great race which is commonly called Indo-Germanic, and the relationship draws itself in constantly narrowing circles round the settlements of the Germans … It is my belief that the German stories do not belong to the northern and southern parts of our fatherland alone but that they are the absolutely common property of the nearly related Dutch, English and Scandinavians’ [13], p. 576.

To date, however, efforts to investigate the descent histories of narrative traditions have been complicated by two main problems. Firstly, tales are not only transmitted ‘vertically’ from ancestral populations to their descendants but also spread ‘horizontally’ between contemporaneous societies as a result of trade, conquest and the dissemination of literary texts, profoundly disrupting the neat concentric patterns of common heritage envisaged by Grimm [14,15]. Secondly, given that folktales have been mainly transmitted through oral means, there is scant evidence to investigate their origins and historical distributions using conventional literary-historical methods. While Grimm believed that many folktales were likely to be thousands of years old, only a tiny minority can be traced back to before the emergence of the literary fairy tale in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This has led to intense debates about the presumed antiquity of traditional tales [16], with some researchers claiming that many canonical fairy tales may actually be relatively recent literary inventions [17,18].

Here, we tackle these problems using quantitative phylogenetic methods that were initially developed in biology and have been recently employed to investigate the relationships between population histories and a number of cultural phenomena, such as languages [1,2,4], marriage practices [7], political institutions [19] material culture [8–10,20] and music [21]. Phylogenetic methods have also been applied to folklore to analyse cross-cultural distributions of international tale types/variants, and examine their relationships to spatial, genetic and linguistic patterns [22–25]. This research suggests that similarities among folktale corpora are correlated with both population histories and geographical proximity. However, no study has yet attempted to disentangle the specific legacies of common descent and regional diffusion, or to investigate how far back lineages of vertical transmission can be traced. In this paper, we address these issues directly.

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The Atlantic has an article about this research: The Fairy Tales That Predate Christianity.

Addendum: There's a long and interesting discussion of this work over at LanguageHat.

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