Many well known fairy tales predate the existence of modern European languages and major world religions, finds new research.

The findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, open up the possibility that popular folktales influenced writings in Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible and other religious works. They also negate the claims of some scholars who have held that most traditional fairy tales originated much more recently.

"Versions of 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Rumplestiltskin' and 'Jack and the Beanstalk' have probably been around since before the existence of many modern European languages, like English, German, Russian and French, and would have originally been told in a now extinct ancestral language from which those tongues evolved," co-author Jamshid Tehrani of Durham University told Discovery News.

Fact-Checking the Bible

Tehrani added, “It is difficult to put precise dates on such things, but we're looking in the region of 4–6,000 years old.”

Tehrani and co-author Sara Graça da Silva of the New University of Lisbon investigated whether 275 Indo-European fairy tales were more likely to be shared by closely related populations than more distantly related ones. They tested whether the sharing of the tales could be predicted by how close populations were geographically, or by how related their languages are.

The process enabled the researchers to separate the effects of tales traveling between neighboring groups (such as through trade or migrations) from tales that had been inherited from common ancestral groups. This narrowed the number of tales down to 76 whose distributions could be primarily explained by common heritage.

Stonehenge Made to Glisten: Photos

The researchers next mapped the 76 tales on a "family tree" of Indo-European languages to see how far the stories could be traced back, using the same techniques that biologists utilize to reconstruct the evolution of genetically inherited traits.

One of the oldest tales of the bunch was determined to be "The Smith and the Devil," in which a blacksmith sells his soul to a devil/evil spirit in return for the power to weld any materials together. The blacksmith then uses that power to attach the devil to a stool or tree, and only releases the devil on the condition that he may keep his soul.

"We trace this tale back to the Bronze Age ancestors of the Indo-European language family," Tehrani said.

This is an illustration from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1890.Toronto Public Library, Flickr

The age of the tale and its subject help to resolve a long-standing issue among historians. Previously it was thought that Indo-European languages originated prior to metallurgy, but the researchers now think that is highly unlikely.

"Potentially we could use the information preserved in folktales to extrapolate other features of ancestral societies, such as their religious beliefs, moral ideas, gender norms and more," Tehrani said.

Graça da Silva added that many of the early folk tales included animals in the stories. She described an influential one, called "The Grateful Animals," whose plot concerns a group of grateful animals that helps a hero after he rescues them. Usually the animals assist the hero in winning the affections of a princess.

Prehistoric Fossil May Have Inspired Greek Myths

Many of the tales in Grimms’ collection were actually told by women and were often shared by word of mouth. So it's not surprising that themes such as marriage, childbirth, sex and children abound. Later, however, some of these stories underwent various adaptations as they were collected (very often by men), "becoming manuals of proper behavior and a reflection of cultural and social expectations," Graça da Silva said. "Bad girls are usually portrayed as ugly and greedy, for example."

Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota, is a renowned expert on the origin and evolution of fairytales.

He told Discovery News, "Tehrani and Graça da Silva have clearly and scientifically demonstrated that the origins of folk and fairy tales can indeed be traced back to ancient societies by using phylogenetic methods. Their work can serve as the ground work for studies that investigate why certain tale types originated, how they were disseminated and spread throughout the world, and why we keep telling the same tales though different modalities in the present."

Ancient Greeks Were Afraid of Zombies

As for why such stories retain such enduring appeal, Tehrani credits that, in part, to their focus on magic and miracles.

"I think humans everywhere have always been fascinated by beings and objects with special powers, whether wizards or jedi, magic mirrors or time machines," Tehrani said.

Graça da Silva added that the tension in the stories reflects timeless dichotomies: good versus evil, right and wrong, punishment and reward, male and female, moral and immoral, and many more.