Many traditional fairy tales, long thought to be a somewhat recent invention, have actually been around for thousands of years, according to a new study. "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 tells Discovery News. He estimates that some such tales pre-date the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology, having been in existence as many as 4,000 to 6,000 years, and may have actually influenced the Bible and other religious texts. Generally, fairy tales have been believed to date back to just the 16th or 17th centuries, though the Brothers Grimm long believed the stories they transcribed and popularized were actually much older, the BBC reports.
"We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm," Tehrani tells the BBC. "Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record." Tehrani, an anthropologist, and fellow researcher Sara Graça da Silva, a folklorist, used phylogenetic methods more commonly used by biologists to come to their conclusions. Discovery reports they looked at 275 Indo-European fairy tales, narrowing those down to 76 that had likely been passed down through a closely-related group and mapping those onto a "family tree" of Indo-European languages in order to trace them back to a common ancestor. By analyzing common languages and geographical proximity, the Guardian reports, the researchers determined how far back they could trace the tales. The stories we know today evolved, much like humans, the Washington Post explains, and the tree showed that evolution. Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, is part of a group of stories the researchers called "The Boy Who Stole Ogre's Treasure," which can be traced back 5,000 years to when there was a language split, according to the Guardian. (Another recent study has bad news for Cinderella.)