Biologists reconstruct the descent histories of life forms on planet Earth as the tree of life, its dense trunks and branches leading from common ancestors to new species. Such phylogenetic relationships are not limited to biology. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal applied the same analysis tools and techniques to storytelling. Using the catalogue of categorized written folklore in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, they “recorded the presence/absence of each [of] these tales […] in 50 Indo-European-speaking populations represented in the ATU Index” and traced along the resulting tree-like descent histories how these stories were transmitted.
The vertically-transmitted story is passed down within a culture through cultural inheritance. After migration and time, the story might show up around the world, told in daughter languages that emerged out of the original language in which it was first told. A horizontally-transmitted story leaps across cultural and language boundaries to reach foreign audiences. Graça da Silva and Tehrani found evidence for stronger vertical than horizontal transmissions for many of the folk tales they studied. When “accounting for spatial relationships among linguistically related Indo-European groups,” many folktales seemed to have been rejected by adjacent cultures. Rejection by foreign cultures and missed opportunities to translate and adopt such stories that might have changed them significantly helped them to retain much of their original form.
Graça da Silva and Tehrani traced this remarkable retention of the basic story arc across hundreds and thousands of years and miles to glimpse—for a few stories—ancient origins in the oral traditions. They discovered that “The Smith and the Devil” fairy tale might have originated over 6000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Preserved in the phylogenetic relationships are ancient moments of telling: a blacksmith and their fictional story about the struggle to smelt copper and alloy, or other community members and their fictional stories about the blacksmith. After all, to pursue craft is isolating; to pursue work with metals is magical, powerful, dangerous, and thus perfect for gossip and exclusion and storytelling.
Certainly the Devil is involved. There’s the bargain—the smith’s soul for mastery over the new dark arts—and there’s the twist—the morally questionable smith beats the Devil at his own game—and there’s the implication that art, craft, technology, knowledge itself are both divine and damning. From roots to branches, it’s an implication that susurrates thousands of years later.
This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Richard Leis.
Graça da Silva, Sara and Tehrani, Jamshid J. “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales.” Royal Society Open Science. 3: 150645. 20 January 2016. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645>
 “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu>
 Monbiot, George. “The Smith and the Devil.” George Monbiot. 1 January 1994. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/smith-and-the-devil/>
“330: The Smith Outwits the Devil.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu&act=select&atu=330>