From Julien d’Huy at Scientific American:
Although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not. These sagas all belong to a family of myths known as the Cosmic Hunt that spread far and wide in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas among people who lived more than 15,000 years ago. Every version of the Cosmic Hunt shares a core story line—a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations.
Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists have long puzzled over why complex mythical stories that surface in cultures widely separated in space and time are strikingly similar. In recent years a promising scientific approach to comparative mythology has emerged in which researchers apply conceptual tools that biologists use to decipher the evolution of living species. In the hands of those who analyze myths, the method, known as phylogenetic analysis, consists of connecting successive versions of a mythical story and constructing a family tree that traces the evolution of the myth over time.
My phylogenetic studies make use of the extra rigor of statistical and computer-modeling techniques from biology to elucidate how and why myths and folktales evolve. In addition to the Cosmic Hunt, I have analyzed other major families of myths that share recurring themes and plot elements. Pygmalion stories depict a man who creates a sculpture and falls in love with it. In Polyphemus myths, a man gets trapped in the cave of a monster and escapes by insinuating himself into a herd of animals, under the monster’s watchful eye. More.
Myths are fascinating, but really, phylogenetic analysis is just a new craze, the way Freudian analysis was an old one. It is better to see them for what they are: people telling stories about themselves. Like family histories, they are usually sort of true, but embellished.
See also: The search for our earliest ancestors: signals in the noise
Early human religion: A 747 built in the basement with an X-Acto knife
Imagine a world of religions that naturalism might indeed be able to explain
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A modern myth: Ctulthu