Taxonomy classifies organisms in a way that maps life’s diversification and ancestral connections across time. When folklorists started charting popular stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” the same way, they built evolutionary trees that revealed surprising connections between childhood tales across cultures. For Harper’s, science writer Ferris Jabr explores this lesser known scientific approach to children’s narratives, which treats a story’s structural elements as genes, called mythemes. But this approach peers much deeper than individual stories’ genealogies. It exposes the ancient, durable roots of storytelling itself and our nature as a species. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” Jabr writes, were no longer “just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed — they were more than 2,500 years old.”
“Most stories probably don’t survive that long,” says Tehrani. “But when you find a story shared by populations that speak closely related languages, and the variants follow a treelike model of descent, I think coincidence or convergence is an incredibly unlikely explanation. I have young children myself, and I read them bedtime stories, just as parents have done for hundreds of generations. To think that some of these stories are so old that they are older than the language I’m using to tell them—I find something deeply compelling about that.”
The story of storytelling began so long ago that its opening lines have dissolved into the mists of deep time. The best we can do is loosely piece together a first chapter. We know that by 1.5 million years ago early humans were crafting remarkably symmetrical hand axes, hunting cooperatively, and possibly controlling fire. Such skills would have required careful observation and mimicry, step-by-step instruction, and an ability to hold a long series of events in one’s mind—an incipient form of plot. At least one hundred thousand years ago, and possibly much earlier, humans were drawing, painting, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying the dead. And by forty thousand years ago, humans were creating the type of complex, imaginative, and densely populated murals found on the chalky canvases of ancient caves: art that reveals creatures no longer content to simply experience the world but who felt compelled to record and re-imagine it. Over the past few hundred thousand years, the human character gradually changed. We became consummate storytellers.