Trail of Red Riding Hood traced
Little Red Riding Hood may be commonly depicted as pale-skinned and blonde but she has distant relatives in Africa and Asia, research has shown.
Scientists traced the folk tale's evolutionary tree and found links with similar stories as far away as China, Japan and Korea.
Just as humans and chimpanzees share an ancient ancestor, all these tales arose from a common source, experts believe.
The Wolf and the Kids, a story dating back to the first century AD and popular in Europe and the Middle East, tells of a wolf that impersonates a nanny goat and devours her offspring.
Some 1,000 years later the wolf was still cast in the role of the villain, but the nanny goat was transformed into Red Riding Hood's grandmother.
Other branches of the story led to Red Riding Hood variants in Africa and Asia, where the wolf is replaced by an ogre or tiger.
Scientists followed the trail of Little Red Riding Hood using techniques normally used by biologists to group together closely related organisms and place them on a "tree of life" mapping their evolution.
They subjected 58 stories to the process, known as phylogenetic analysis.
The researchers focused on 72 plot variables, such as the characters of the protagonist and villain, the tricks used by the villain to deceive the victim, and whether the victim is eaten, escapes or is rescued.
Anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, from the University of Durham, who led the study, said: "My research cracks a long-standing mystery. The African tales turn out to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids but over time, they have evolved to become like Little Red Riding Hood, which is also likely to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids.
"This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species."
He added: "There is a popular theory that an archaic, ancestral version of Little Red Riding Hood originated in Chinese oral tradition. It is claimed the tale spread west, along the Silk Route, and gave rise to both The Wolf and the Kids and the modern version of Little Red Riding Hood. My analysis demonstrates that in fact the Chinese version is derived from European oral traditions, and not vice versa."
The Chinese blended together Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf and the Kids, and local folk tales to create a new hybrid story featuring a tiger, he said.
This tale was first written down by the Chinese poet Huang Zhing. Dr Tehrani said it was significant that he was a contemporary of Charles Perrault, the 17th century Frenchman whose version of Little Red Riding Hood formed the basis of the familiar Brothers Grimm tale. Perrault's story was itself derived from a n older oral tradition of in France, Austria and northern Italy.
"This implies that the Chinese version is not derived from literary versions of Little Red Riding Hood but from the older, oral version, with which it shares crucial similarities. It is therefore understandable that previous scholars have assumed it to be ancestral to the European tale - but actually it's the other way around," said Dr Tehrani, whose findings appear in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.
He is now applying phylogenetics to other folk stories. Dr Tehrani believes his research could shed light on the migration patterns of humans in ancient times.