Fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast can be traced back thousands of years, according to researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon.
Using techniques normally employed by biologists, academics studied links between stories from around the world and found some had prehistoric roots.
They found some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the bronze age.
The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.
In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.
Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm.
“Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.”
The study, which was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, employed phylogenetic analysis, which was developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between species.
It also used a tree of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.
Dr Tehrani said Jack And The Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.
Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old.
And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the bronze age.
Dr Tehrani said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written.
“They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed.”
“They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”
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