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.
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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."
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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.