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The Tell-Tale Genome: genetic and cultural studies shed light on the spread of Eurasian folktales

last modified Aug 08, 2017 08:26 AM
A new study has used for the first time worldwide genomic data to understand how the traditional folktales in Europe and Asia spread across the continent.

The authors of the paper, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), used genetic relationships to determine whether the diffusion of traditional folktales was the result of migratory activities or rather the result of exchange of information and goods between human populations.

Example of the trend and focal area identified for the folktale Thumbling (Tom Thumb) in the dataset. Image credit: Stefania Sarno

The study is based on 596 traditional folktales recorded in Eurasia comprising “Animal Tales” and “Tales of Magic” of the international Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) classification and recently published data on genomic variability.

“We found that traditional Eurasian folktales, although transmitted from parents to children, are not likely to have spread over long distances - over ca. 4000  km - following the big migrations and population movements which left a trace in our genome” said lead author Dr Eugenio Bortolini from the University of Bologna / Spanish National Research Council.

In fact, the majority of the studied tales may have travelled far from their area of origin thanks to the exchange of ideas and goods between populations, in a scenario that does not entail population replacement but is more similar to a “continental word of mouth”.

Dr Enrico Crema, co-author from the University of Cambridge, explains further: “If there are two groups located at shorter distances, the similarity of their folk-tale traditions could be the results of migration - people bringing their stories with them when they physically moved. But, if they are located at more than ca. 4000km the similarity is more likely explained by cultural diffusion, i.e. word of mouth.”

Results of this work also support the hypothesis that the appearance and strengthening of linguistic barriers acted on the processes of cultural diffusion across Eurasia.

“Speaking languages belonging to different families has a remarkable effect on the probability that two human groups share the same tales" -  says Dr Jamshid J. Tehrani, senior author from the University of Durham - confirming previous expectations and the idea that most tales were initially orally spread.

Even more interestingly, “linguistic barriers had a more limited but significant effect also on the amount of genetic admixture between populations, although at a smaller geographic scale”, confirms Dr Luca Pagani, co-first author from the Estonian Biocentre / University of Padova.

In addition, possible regions of origin of the most widespread tales have been tentatively identified, pointing at four main centres from which continental diffusion may have originated - eastern Europe, Caucasus, west Africa, and northern Asia, as in the case of the well-known “Thumbling” (Tom Thumb).

Overall, this study demonstrates how multidisciplinary efforts integrating biological and cultural evidence provide invaluable results for unveiling our multi-faceted evolutionary history.


The original article is available here:

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