Photograph by The British Library Board, Getty Images

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The wolf walks along with Little Red Riding Hood in this illustration for the folktale.

Photograph by The British Library Board, Getty Images

What Wide Origins You Have, Little Red Riding Hood!

An anthropologist chases down a tale told around the world.

It's a story told around the world. Little Red Riding Hood goes to visit her grandmother, only to discover that a wolf has eaten the old lady, dressed in her clothes, and now plans to eat the little girl too.

What happens next depends on which version you hear: Was Little Red Riding Hood devoured? Did a passing huntsman cut her from the wolf's belly? Did she trick the wolf into letting her go outside? In parts of Iran, the child in peril is a boy, because little girls wouldn't wander out on their own. In Africa, the villain could be a fox or a hyena. In East Asia, the predator is more likely to be a big cat.

Where did the original story come from? Scholars have been puzzling over that for years. Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, thinks he's found the answer. In a paper published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, he argues that methods used to track the evolution of biological species can be applied to the evolution of folktales. National Geographic spoke with Tehrani about his hunt for the origins of this famous story.

Why did you think that a scientific method might work to determine the evolution of folk tales?

Folktales are like biological species: They literally evolve by descent with modification. They get told and retold with slight alterations, and then that gets passed on to the next generation and gets altered again.

In many ways the problem of reconstructing folklore tradition is very similar to the problem of reconstructing the evolutionary relationship of species. We have little evidence about the evolution of species because the fossil record is so patchy. Similarly, folktales are only very occasionally written down. We need to use some kind of method for reconstructing that history in the absence of physical evidence.

You used a methodology called phylogenetics. Can you explain what that is?

What you do with phylogenetics is you reconstruct history by inferring the past that's been preserved through inheritance. The descendants of ancestral species will resemble them in certain ways. You can figure out which features of a related group of organisms or folktales could be traced back to a common ancestor.

What are some of the theories about the origins of "Little Red Riding Hood"?

It's been suggested that the tale was an invention of Charles Perrault, who wrote it down in the 17th century. Other people have insisted that "Little Red Riding Hood" has ancient origins. There's an 11th-century poem from Belgium which was recorded by a priest, who says, oh, there's this tale told by the local peasants about a girl wearing a red baptism tunic who wanders off and encounters this wolf.

My results demonstrate that, although most versions that we're familiar with today descended from Perrault's tale, he didn't invent it. My analysis confirmed that the 11th-century poem is indeed an early ancestor of the modern fairy tale.

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Don't some scholars argue that the folktale came from Asia?

It's been suggested that the story may have originated in East Asia and spread westward, and as it spread west, it split into two distinct tales, "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Wolf and the Kids." People have long recognized that there's some kind of relationship between the two stories, but nobody's really been able to demonstrate what the nature of that relationship is. A popular theory is that they're both descended from Chinese tradition, because these Chinese tales have elements of both.

My analysis shows that, in fact, the East Asian versions aren't the source. If the East Asian tales were truly ancestral, we would expect them to resemble the older and ancestral variants of "The Wolf and the Kids" and "Little Red Riding Hood." But instead they are more like the modern fairy tale versions. For example, in the East Asian tales we find a version of the famous dialogue between the victim and the villain which goes, "What big eyes you have!" But my reconstructions of the prehistory of the tale suggest that this dialogue evolved relatively recently. This is supported by the fact that it's missing from the 11th-century poem, which is the earliest known variant.

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Little Red Riding Hood, also known in some versions of the story as Little Red Cap, encounters the wolf in this turn-of-the-century French trading card.

What is the story of "The Wolf and the Kids"?

A nanny goat leaves her kids at home and tells them not to open the door for anyone. What she doesn't realize is that a wolf is outside the house and overhears her. While she's out, the wolf comes to the door and pretends to be the nanny goat. When he gets in, he eats the kids all up. At the end of the story, the nanny goat tracks him down, kills him, and cuts open his belly and frees her kids.

What makes stories about predators disguised as beloved relatives so appealing to different cultures around the world?

Ultimately, the predator is metaphorical. The stories are really about how people aren't always who they seem to be, which is a really important lesson in life. Even people that we think we can trust can actually be out to harm us. In fact, it's precisely because we trust them that we are vulnerable to what their harmful intentions might be toward us.

Why do the origins of these stories matter?

We could regard folktales as a marker of human history showing how different societies have interacted with one another and how people have moved around the world.

I think there's a bigger and more interesting question about human imagination. These folktales embody fantasies and experiences and fears. They're a really good way of reading, through the products of our imagination, what we really care about.

The interview has been edited and condensed.