A study by anthropologists has explored the origins of folk tales and traced the relationship between varients of the stories recounted by cultures around the world.
The researchers adopted techniques used by biologists to create the taxonomic tree of life, which shows how every species comes from a common ancestor.
Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world.
Whilst the European version tells the story of a little girl who is tricked by a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, in the Chinese version a tiger replaces the wolf.
In Iran, where it would be considered odd for a young girl to roam alone, the story features a little boy.
Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the varients shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.
He said: “Over time these folk tales have been subtly changed and have evolved just like an biological organism. Because many of them were not written down until much later, they have been misremembered or reinvented through hundreds of generations.
“By looking at how these folk tales have spread and changed it tells us something about human psychology and what sort of things we find memorable.
“The oldest tale we found was an Aesopic fable that dated from about the sixth century BC, so the last common ancestor of all these tales certainly predated this. We are looking at a very ancient tale that evolved over time.”
Dr Tehrani, who will present his work on Tuesday at the British Science Festival in Guildford, Surrey, identified 70 variables in plot and characters between different versions of Little Red Riding Hood.
He found that the stories could be grouped into distinct families according to how they evolved over time.
The original ancestor is thought to be similar to another tale, The Wolf and the Kids, in which a wolf pretends to be a nanny goat to gain entry to a house full of young goats.