A new research paper appearing in the PLOS ONE journal uses data analytics for a very unique purpose – to untangle the origins of one of the world’s best-known stories — the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. The paper is called “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” by Durham University anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani.
Most Westerners were taught the familiar version of the story as children: Little Red Riding Hood sets out for Grandma’s house with a basket of goodies, but a big bad wolf finds out about her itinerary, gobbles up Grandma and disguises itself to lure the little girl to her doom. “What big teeth you have!” Little Red Riding Hood remarks before the wolf devours her.
But there are plenty of other versions from around the world: a similar tale, known as “The Wolf and the Kids,” is told in parts of Europe and the Middle East — and still other variants are told elsewhere. In Japan, Korea and China, there’s the story of “The Tiger Grandmother” (also known as “Grand-aunt Tiger”). In Africa, there’s ”Motikatika and the Ogre.”
The question is whether all these stories had a common genesis? To answer that question, data analytics came to the rescue. Tehrani took 58 variants of the “X-eats-Y” tale and classified them based on 72 variables – for example, are the protagonists human children or animals? Male or female? What kind of creature plays the villain? Do the protagonists escape, and if so, how?
Tehrani then fed the data into three different kinds of algorithms that are used for phylogenetic analysis, the study of evolutionary relationships among groups of organisms. The technique has also been used to trace relationships between different manuscripts, including versions of biblical texts and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
Tehrani’s analysis determined that “The Wolf and the Kids” scenario probably originated in the 1st century, and that the version featuring Little Red Riding Hood branched off about 1,000 years later.