Fairy tales are an intrinsic part of our lives: in childhood, we are entertained and educated by the lessons imparted in their stories, and later in life, they continue to inspire and be adapted into popular culture, spawning new books, movies, television and video games.

While some of our oldest fairy tales can be traced to the 6th century storyteller Aesop, there is some contention that he based his stories on older fables. 19th century author Wilhelm Grimm said that he believed that the tales that he and his brother Jacob authored were thousands of years old, but this idea was dismissed by others shortly afterward. However, a new study shows that the origins of fables that have been retold over the centuries may have roots in our deep past.

The joint study was conducted by researchers from New University of Lisbon and Durham University in England. Using a technique more commonly employed by biologists, the researchers created a set of phylogenetic tree diagrams to trace linguistic attributes found within the collected fables back to their origins. This procedure was applied to 275 fables, which in turn were pared down to 76 basic story types.

The results of these phylogenetic trees showed that some of our familiar fables predate both the Bible and ancient Greek myths: Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, was traced back to over 5,000 years ago, and the tale of The Smith and The Devil was traced back to the Bronze Age, from roughly 6,000 years ago. 

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