Chris Catling comments on… Folk Tales, Sleep, and Protecting Antiquities

6 mins read

Some of our favourite ‘fairy stories’ go back to the Bronze Age, if not before, according to the authors of a paper published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J Tehrani wanted to test the hypothesis that the ‘canonical’ folk tales of different cultures might have had a common origin among speakers of proto-Indo-European, and that the spread of these stories geographically mirrors the migrations of peoples across the globe, and the development of the new Indo-European languages and cultures.

They used a technique derived from DNA studies, called comparative phylogenetic analysis, to look at folk tales in different languages. For most of us, the validity of this technique has to be taken on trust – one assumes that the paper has been peer-reviewed by people who are familiar with the methodology. The results, though, bear out Wilhelm Grimm’s belief ‘that the German stories do not belong to the northern and southern parts of our fatherland alone but that they are the absolutely common property of the nearly related Dutch, English, and Scandinavians.’ In fact, to that list he could add most of the people living in Europe and western Asia.

Wilhelm and his brother Jacob, who collected traditional German folk tales in the 19th century, also believed that many folktales were not, as some researchers have claimed, relatively recent (that is, 16th- and 17th-century) literary inventions, but were thousands of years old; some, indeed, are recorded in Greek and Roman literature.

Bettering the Devil

Graça da Silva and Tehrani studied 50 different stories in 50 different languages, and based their dating on ‘well-established correspondences between population dispersals and the diversification of linguistic lineages’, working out that one tale – The Smith and the Devil – dates from the early Bronze Age and the dawn of Indo-European metallurgy. This tale – variants of which exist from India to Scandinavia – concerns a blacksmith who exchanges his soul with a supernatural being in return for the power to forge metal; he then uses his new powers to pin the Devil/Death/genie/jinn to a tree.The group of stories called The Boy Who Stole the Ogre’s Treasure, including the version familiar to many as Jack and the Beanstalk, is probably 5,000 years old, while Beauty and the Beast, or The Animal Bride, is estimated to be about 4,000 years old. The Cinderella story, from the story group called The Kind and Unkind Girls, is equally ancient. It is interesting to note how many of these timeless stories involve a weaker heroic figure getting the better of a stronger evil one, which is all to the good, because otherwise we would not have any characters to boo, hiss, and cheer at the pantomime!

Chris Catliing campfire

Round the campfire

Many of these stories must surely have been born in the long, cold winter nights of prehistory, either as a diversion and an entertainment for the cave-dwelling community, or as a way of helping everyone drift off into sleep. This fits with the findings of a research paper published in Current Biology, which suggests that it has always been difficult to get a good night’s sleep. The theory that we have only recently begun to suffer sleep deprivation as a result of electric light, bedroom TVs, or addiction to the internet, smartphones, and social media, is a myth.

Our sleep patterns today are, in fact, much like those of our ancient ancestors, according to an anthropological study of people living hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticulturalist lifestyles today. None go to bed at dusk and rise at dawn: instead they stay up for an average of three hours and 20 minutes after sunset, and get no more sleep than people in the industrialised world. For the flickering of the TV screen substitute the flickering of the campfire.

Sleep deprivation: the mother of invention

These results were obtained by giving watches to members of the Hadza people of Tanzania, the San in Namibia, and the Tsimane in Bolivia, and asking them to record how long they slept at different times of the year and at different seasons. The average was six hours and 25 minutes in summer, an hour longer in winter. Gandhi Yetish, co-author of the study, said that ‘the expectation that we should all be sleeping eight or nine hours a night and that if you took away modern technology, people would be sleeping more’ is wrong.

The authors found that temperature was a better indicator of sleep patterns than sunlight: all those tracked by the study went to sleep as the fire died and the temperature fell; they woke when it reached its minimum, just before sunrise. This suggests that over-heated bedrooms might be the real reason for poor sleep patterns in the industrial world. Instead of taking sleeping pills, people should turn the central heating down or throw off the duvet.

The researchers did not track what people did as they sat around the dying embers of the campfire, but surely the Scout and Guide practice of telling stories and singing songs has a very ancient pedigree: not for nothing were soldiers, sailors, and fishermen great singers, accordion-players, and yarn-spinners in the 18th and 19th centuries, responsible for much of what we now call ‘folk’ music and song; Gypsies and Travellers were also great carriers of the folk tradition. Come to think of it, don’t rock musicians also tend to live a largely nocturnal lifestyle?

Israel’s antiquities laws

Also nocturnal are the so-called ‘nighthawks’ that plague so many nations, using the cover of darkness to dig for and steal ancient artefacts, destroying their archaeological context and feeding the ever-hungry market for illicit antiquities. The rich archaeological heritage of Israel, in particular, is being constantly eroded by illegal excavations carried out to meet an escalating demand for antiquities with the added appeal of biblical associations. It is estimated that 11,000 out of a total of 14,000 registered sites that lie within the pre-1967 borders of Israel have been robbed.

Now, though, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), responsible for fighting these thefts, has hailed as a major victory the ruling by the Israeli High Court that antiquities dealers must register their inventories online – a proposal that was first made in 2012, but that has been subject to legal challenge by 15 licensed antiquities dealers.

Speaking after the High Court judgement, advocate Radwan Badihi, legal adviser for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that ‘antiquities are the historical and cultural property of the people and the country, and belong to the nation and the public. The value of the objects lies in the message they bring from the past and their great importance to the historical and cultural research of all mankind, rather than as a vehicle for making money and personal gain by a handful of interested antique dealers.’

He went on to say that: ‘the phenomenon of antiquities robbery is a national catastrophe. The court’s ruling has put an end to years of ongoing damage to cultural assets and will place Israel in line with the civilised countries of the world in protecting the nation’s cultural heritage and antiquities.’

Will the new laws work?

We can only hope that Radwan Badihi’s optimism is well placed. Dealers can be very clever at finding ways round the letter of the law. Some CWA readers might remember all the hard work that went into getting a law through the Westminster parliament in 2003 aimed at stemming the thriving internet trade in unprovenanced antiquities. That law seems to have had very little impact on the illicit trade in cultural objects, and there have been precious few prosecutions. Why not? Partly because, like other widely disregarded laws (such as mobile-phone use in cars and hogging the motorway middle lane in the UK) the Westminster parliament only favours laws that are neutral in their financial impact (parliamentary code for ‘we are not going to give you the resources to enforce the law’); and, in this particular case, because antiquities dealers supported the new law right up until the moment the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act received Royal Assent on 30 October 2003, and only then revealed that they would mount a legal challenge to any prosecution. It was, they argued, incumbent on the UK Government to publish a list of illicit antiquities, so that responsible dealers could check to see if any object offered to them for sale was on the list – in the absence of such a list, how could they possibly know whether the objects that they accepted for sale in good faith had been acquired illicitly? It was unreasonable, they argued, to expect dealers to police the new law, and it would destroy the relationship of trust between seller and dealer. The Israeli solution suggests that it is time to revisit the law, and require dealers to publish their stock so that the authorities can check it, rather than the other way around.

1 Comment

  1. In the beginning of this article you write: “… a common origin among speakers of proto-Indo-European” (?!)

    AFAIK “Indo-European”, and certainly “Proto-Indo-European” are the pastimes and creations of contemporary theoretical linguists. These so-called “languages” have never existed, they are artificial constructs made in order to study the relatedness of real-life languages.

    As “Proto-Indo-European” is no language there were no “speakers of proto-Indo-European”, and …well, my reading of your article stopped dead right there. Nonsense is not my favourite reading.

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