Wednesday 4 March 2015

The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood

Folklorists have a complex and internationally recognised system for classifying different folk tales - the ATU type index. This index has behind it the assumption that there are a discrete number of motifs from which different tales are constructed. For example, there are numerous folk tales based around the motif of brothers who were turned into birds (type 451).
Although there are commonalities between tales, a particular tale must begin somewhere. Told for the first time by someone. Because these tales are oral and have moved, diffused, changed, we will never know who. Or when. Or where.

The following paper uses advanced phylogenetic analysis, developed to analyse evolutionary relationships between species from molecular biology data, to analyse Little Red Riding Hood.

Researchers have long been fascinated by the strong continuities evident in the oral traditions associated with different cultures. According to the ‘historic-geographic’ school, it is possible to classify similar tales into “international types” and trace them back to their original archetypes. However, critics argue that folktale traditions are fundamentally fluid, and that most international types are artificial constructs. Here, these issues are addressed using phylogenetic methods that were originally developed to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among biological species, and which have been recently applied to a range of cultural phenomena. The study focuses on one of the most debated international types in the literature: ATU 333, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. A number of variants of ATU 333 have been recorded in European oral traditions, and it has been suggested that the group may include tales from other regions, including Africa and East Asia. However, in many of these cases, it is difficult to differentiate ATU 333 from another widespread international folktale, ATU 123, ‘The Wolf and the Kids’. To shed more light on these relationships, data on 58 folktales were analysed using cladistic, Bayesian and phylogenetic network-based methods. The results demonstrate that, contrary to the claims made by critics of the historic-geographic approach, it is possible to identify ATU 333 and ATU 123 as distinct international types. They further suggest that most of the African tales can be classified as variants of ATU 123, while the East Asian tales probably evolved by blending together elements of both ATU 333 and ATU 123. These findings demonstrate that phylogenetic methods provide a powerful set of tools for testing hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales, and point towards exciting new directions for research into the transmission and evolution of oral narratives.