Let me tell you a fairy tale. A girl, dressed in a bright red cape, journeys deep into the forest to see her aging grandmother. There she finds the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s skin” scarily literalized: a wolf has donned her grandmother’s garments to lure the little girl, whom he plans to eat. But the wolf’s plan is thwarted by a vigilante lumberjack who bursts in at just the right moment to save Little Red. He chops the wolf open and extracts the girl and her grandmother from the belly of the beast.
But you probably already knew this story, known as “Little Red Riding Hood.” And your familiarity is a remarkable feat that speaks to the power of storytelling. Seeking to explore this phenomenon, an anthropologist has found that “Little Red Riding Hood” and its variations find their origins all the way back to the first century A.D.
Jamie Tehrani, the Durham University researcher who led this project, found that versions of the story have been told all over the world. Children of the West learn the story I recounted from the Brothers Grimm, but Tehrani found that variations are told in the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia as well. Using the concept phylogenic tree (which you’ll recall from your introductory biology class), the researcher looked at 58 variations, focusing on 72 plot variables, and created a tree of the story’s evolution. The tree branches off into three major sections, which are associated with specific locations, for the most part.
This is, of course, a really cool discovery, but it's also a reminder of reassuring idea: as much as culture and geography fractures the world, there are some things that are still universal.