Listen to part of a BBC radio programmen on fairy tales and complete the blanks in the sentences below with up to THREE words. 0 is an example.
Dr Jamie Tehrani is an anthropologist at Durham University.
1 The fairy tales Dr Jamie Tehrani has studied are between _______________ thousand years old.
2 Stories like Beauty and the Beast go back to the _______________ Age.
3 Fairy tales weren’t written down until the _______________ centuries.
4 Phylogenetic comparative methods enable anthropologists to reconstruct the past in the absence of _______________.
5 We don’t have physical written records of the earliest fairy tales because we’re talking about a time before the _______________.
6 _______________ have been passed down from generations.
7 Anthropologists compare folk tales from different cultures and make inferences about the stories that would have been told by _______________.
We know fairytales are very old, but it seems some are even older than we thought, much older. Dr Jamie Tehrani is an anthropologist at Durham University and he’s written this latest study on fairytales. So how old, Dr Tehrani?
Well good morning, thanks for having me on the show. I would like to just start by saying that I was a co-author on the study with a wonderful researcher in Portugal called Sara Graca Da Silva who did a fantastic job on this project, she actually got the funding for it. So, these fairytales that we’ve looked at we’ve been able to trace back really thousands of years, probably sort of four to six thousand years is the origin of many famous European folk tales, stories such as Beauty and the Beast.
What six thousand years?
Yes, going right back to the Bronze Age. We’ve been able to trace the transmission across generations of these stories, much further back than is generally recognised.
So obviously transmitted orally?
Yes, for the large part, yes. So, it’s only fairly recently that these stories have been written down.
And by recently you mean?
Well, it’s early modern times, 16th/17th centuries when you see the emergence of the literary fairytale. And there’s been some debate among scholars about whether perhaps these stories actually originated at that time, maybe they were literary inventions that then spread to these rural areas which folklorists have studied and that these oral folk tales are actually corruptions of literary stories.
Right, because I have to ask you, if they weren’t written down six thousand years ago obviously, how do you know?
Well, we used a set of methods, a toolkit that we actually borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods and these methods enable you to reconstruct the past in the absence of actual direct physical evidence. So, if you think in biology you’ve got this very patchy fossil record, the same is true of culture. Archaeology is a very incomplete record of our cultural past but…
But at least you’ve got something physical there?
Yes, that’s right, and of course you do have something physical in the written record that we can look at some stories going back, you know, a certain period of time.
Yes, but not six thousand years?
Not six thousand years because we’re talking about a time before the origins of writing.
So the way in which we’ve done that is we’ve excavated information about the past, about our storytelling history using information that’s been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance, so these storytelling traditions have been passed down from generations, so in that sense they embody their own history, and by comparing the folk tales that we find in different cultures and knowing something about the historical relationships among those cultures, we can make inferences about the stories that would have been told by their common ancestors, and that’s the approach that we’ve used.
Well, it’s lovely to think that Beauty and the Beast might have been being told to children six thousand years ago, what a wonderful thought. Dr Jamie Tehrani, thanks a lot.
1 four to six
3 sixteen or seventeen
4 direct physical evidence
5 origins of writing
6 storytelling traditions
7 (their) common ancestors