Humans Traveled Far and Wide Before Little Red Riding Hood Ever Made It Through the Woods
“Little Red Riding Hood” is a fairytale most children have heard. But if you’re not familiar, it tells the story of a young girl who wears a red velvet hood and cape and travels alone through a forest to deliver cake and wine to her grandmother. Upon reaching her destination, the girl encounters a ‘Big Bad Wolf’ disguised as her elderly relative. The wolf devours the girl, but a huntsman soon arrives to save Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother – by cutting open the wolf’s stomach.
But is this the original version of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story? The simple answer is “No”. Over time tales are often transformed – they take on new features and certain aspects are dropped as they adapt to the cultures and times they are told in. Durham University anthropologist Jamie Tehrani explained, “This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species.”
“Little Red Riding Hood” from “Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories.” (Public Domain)
With this in mind, a group of British researchers decided to document the evolutionary tree for “Little Red Riding Hood”. It may be interesting to some to know the origins of a story in general, but for the researchers it also has provided a means to track the history of human migration.
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58 different versions of the story were analyzed. Although there were similarities, the stories varied in the number and gender of the protagonists, the ending (the young girl outwits the wolf and escapes in some versions), and the type of animal or monster that becomes the villain. A variation of the story known as “The Wolf and the Kids” has been popular in Europe and the Middle East and one called “The Tiger Grandmother” is known in East Asia.
A page from an English translation of “The Old Woman and the Tiger.” (Jeff Kaufman)
The study’s results show the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” descended from “The Wolf and the Kids” sometime in the 1st century AD. It only became similar to its current form about 1000 years ago. An African story also emerged from “The Wolf and the Kids” and independently evolved as well. Tehrani explained in a statement,
“This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood 'evolved twice' from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.”
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An 1820 image for “Little Red Riding Hood.” (Public Domain)
The researchers also found that “Little Red Riding Hood” was an oral tale in France, Austria, and northern Italy before it was written down by French author Charles Perrault in the 1600s. The most familiar form of the story only came about 200 years ago – an adaptation created by the Brothers Grimm.
While “Little Red Riding Hood” transformed, other altered versions of “The Wolf and the Kids” were being adapted simultaneously throughout Africa and Asia.
These results suggest tracing other folk stories geographically and over time can reveal more about human migration throughout history.
Illustration from “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids” – a variant to the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. (Public Domain)
Top Image: “Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf in the forest” (1881) by Carl Larsson. Source: Public Domain