Set in prehistoric times, Jean M. Auel‘s EARTH’S CHILDREN series deals with the possible interaction between Neanderthals and our own species, among other things. They are renowned for their meticulously researched descriptions of prehistoric life as well as notorious for their sexual content and the Mary-Sue-like development of the main character. I’ve read the entire series and although I thought the books were entertaining, I do think the literary quality takes a nosedive after the first novel. The Clan of the Cave Bear is quite an interesting book, however, and the 2011 release of the sixth and final book in the series, The Land of Painted Caves, prompted a reread.
The Clan of the Cave Bear is set somewhere between 30,000 to 25,000 years before present, a time when temperature and sea-level were lower than today and much of Europe was either covered with ice or cold steppe/tundra environments. Modern humans shared their environment with Pleistocene megafauna and another species of human: the Neanderthal. The story opens with an earthquake in which five-year-old Ayla’s parents perish. Alone, in an environment full of predators capable of devouring a human child, she wanders the forest and steppe near her home. Weakened by hunger she accidentally disturbs a cave lion and her cub. Ayla manages to escape but gets mauled in the process. After thirst drives her from her hiding place, she once more wanders the steppe until fever, hunger, dehydration and sunburn finally cause her to collapse.
Ayla’s string of misfortune comes to an end when a group of Neanderthals, made homeless in the same earthquake that took Ayla’s parents, pass by. Their medicine woman, Iza, cannot bear to see a child suffer, even a child of the Others. Their leader, a male in his peak named Brun, reluctantly allows Iza to take the child and when Ayla wakes up she is surrounded by her new clan. Ayla is a tall, ugly child by Neanderthal standards, and the Clan is unsure if they should take her in. Sending her away would mean certain death, however, something Brun will not allow now that an effort has been made to save her. When Ayla finds the Clan a new cave, she is allowed to stay, a choice that will have severe consequences for both Ayla and the Clan.
Auel has spent an astonishing amount of time researching her series and this first book clearly shows that. Some of the research for this book is outdated by now, as it has been thirty years since it was released. The difference in height between Ayla and the Neanderthals appears to have been exaggerated, for instance, but the rich detail in which Auel describes the ice age environment is simply awesome. The uses of various plant species, the ecology of Pleistocene fauna and numerous survival strategies are woven into her tale to give those aspects of the story a very realistic feel. Despite all this research, Auel has had to fill in quite a few blanks. Even with thirty years’ more research available since the writing of this book, our knowledge on the period and the Neanderthal species is limited. As a consequence, there is no shortage of speculation in this novel.
One problem for Auel was that until the early eighties a lot of scientists doubted that Neanderthals would have been capable of speaking a complex verbal language. It was not until 1983 that a find in Israel showed that this was indeed anatomically possible for Neanderthals (which still does not prove they did have a complex language). This came too late for Auel, so she solved it by proposing a way of communicating that involved signs and body language but only a few spoken words. In fact, one of Ayla’s early challenges is learning to communicate. Another, even more speculative plot element is the neurological difference between the two species. Auel proposes that Neanderthals possess a racial memory that enables them to tap into the wisdom and experiences of previous generations. To store all this information their skull, and particularly the area that stores memories, has grown to the maximum size that the Neanderthal women’s birth channel can handle. In effect, the full capacity of their brain has been used, making further growth and acquisition of new knowledge impossible.
In this way Auel rationalizes the eventual extinction of the Neanderthals. Science offers us several theories on why the Neanderthals went extinct but no definitive answer. One hotly debated matter is whether or not inbreeding between Neanderthals and humans was possible. Recent genetic research indicates it may have happened, but this is far from universally accepted in the scientific community. The matter of interbreeding, cleverly worked into the plot by Auel, is the subject of a stunning insight into the future of the Clan by Creb, the Clan’s Mog-ur or Magician. I consider this one of the most powerful scenes in the book.
Another thing about the extinction question I noticed is the way Auel hints at a link with the extinction of the cave bear some 27,000 years ago. Finds at Neanderthal sites in Switzerland, Italy and France, among other places, have given rise to the theory that Neanderthals worshipped the cave bear. In the book Auel develops a rich religious life for the male half of the Clan in particular, based on animal totems. The cave bear is the mightiest of these spirits. They see Ursus, as the spirit of the cave bear is called, as the protector of the Clan. They are his people. In several places in the story Auel drops hints that these animals are becoming rare, suggesting that their fates are linked. Some recent finds in Spain indicate that the Neanderthals managed to hang on a little longer, but I liked the parallel and the way Auel handled the worship of cave bears in general.
Auel’s work has received some fierce criticism over the years for its explicit sexual scenes. The first book in the series is a bit different in that respect. For a lot of the book Ayla is too young for sex, and later she is considered extremely ugly in the eyes of the people surrounding her. Despite the absence of explicit sex scenes in The Clan of the Cave Bear, I still consider the way Auel deals with sexuality in this book as a weak element in her story. As a consequence of the Neanderthal development of racial memories and the problems storing them in the vast but still limited brain, Auel’s Neanderthals show a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Their roles in society are strictly divided. The man leads, hunts, provides and protects and the woman gathers, cooks, cares for the children and provides a relief for sexual tension. Because each sex lacks the memories of the other, they are incapable of taking over each other’s roles — incapable of even learning the activities of the other. It makes their society very conservative and completely inflexible, something that is bound to clash with Ayla’s inquisitive and creative nature. The inflexibility of the Clan versus the creativity of the younger human species is a comparison Auel draws numerous times in the book.
Neither the Neanderthals nor the Others have made the link between sex and procreation, which frankly is one of the least likely of Auel’s speculations. Personally, I can’t imagine someone not making the link. Unfortunately it develops into a key plot element in both this book and later parts of the series. With sex and reproduction not linked, monogamy is not required for the Clan. Any man can “relieve his needs” with any woman he chooses. The woman’s consent is not necessary, but it is considered polite to ask the woman’s mate for permission. And so it is possible for Broud, one of the younger males of the Clan and in many ways the embodiment of inflexibility and blind adherence to tradition, to openly abuse Ayla. Not because of any attraction on his part, or to father a child. He does this solely to make a point. He is the man, he has the right to order her to do whatever he wishes and he will make her stay within the bounds prescribed for a woman by Clan tradition. The whole sequence that leads up to this event in the book didn’t work too well for me. Broud is too much of a stereotypical cave man in my opinion, and the Clan’s complete lack of understanding as to why Ayla objects to this treatment does not strike me as very likely.
The struggle between Ayla and Broud in many ways represents the enormous challenge Ayla faces in fitting into this alien society and conforming to their traditions. Although there are some aspects of it I didn’t like, Ayla’s story does carry an enormous load of suppressed emotion. The Clan of the Cave Bear is a tragic book in many ways: a story of the demise of a species as well as the ultimate failure of Creb and Ayla to bridge the gap between their species. Ayla puts a very human face on this large theme, her actions constantly underlining the difference between their species but also highlighting certain human emotions the species share. Auel carefully builds up to the crisis that forms the climax of the novel. By that point it is not entirely unexpected but the way the story plays out is heart-wrenching at times.
The combination of meticulous research and an emotionally powerful story has made this novel into something special. Although I have read the other books in the series and enjoyed them, I don’t think any of these books quite manage this same mix. I can’t honestly recommend the other books in the series but The Clan of the Cave Bear is an unusual novel. Not without its flaws, perhaps, but still something of a landmark. One of those books one ought to have read. It works fine as a standalone, so even if the others do not interest you, give this one a try.