The Mammoth Hunters, the third book in Jean M. Auel‘s EARTH’S CHILDREN series, followed relatively quickly on the heels of The Valley of Horses. After this one, the gap between books increases. It would take Auel 26 years to get the last three published. I guess it was a good thing that Auel took more time for the fourth book. The Plains of Passage is not up to the standard of The Clan of the Cave Bear, but it certainly beats this third volume. Still, there is something very readable about these books. She never managed to get close to the level of the first book, but millions have devoured the other five anyway. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t make The Mammoth Hunters a good book.
Ayla and Jondalar meet a group of Mamutoi, Mammoth Hunters of the Plains north of the territory Ayla grew up in. This meeting is Ayla’s introduction into modern human society. In their cold and mostly treeless environment, they survive by using every part of the largest animal on the plains, including their bones as building material and fuel. Although they are not Jondalar’s people, he’s met other Mamutoi before and is much better prepared to blend into their society. For Ayla it is a complete culture shock. Their relationship is put to the test when Ayla finds the acceptance she’s been craving among the Mamutoi, and worse, one of their men takes an interest in her.
I guess I’d better start with the major problem with this novel and get it over with. The most important plot element of this novel is a love triangle between Ayla, Jondalar and the Mamutoi carver Ranec. He is portrayed as the opposite of Jondalar and very attractive in a way. Creative, witty and charming, he has no problem getting her attention, which enrages Jondalar. Jealousy is one of his very few negative character traits. The whole thing is one of the steps on Ayla’s quest to introduce monogamous relationships/marriage and patriarchal cultures. Some people have interpreted the series as a whole as a fall from innocence for humanity: sexual freedom and equality between the sexes crushed by the need to make sure your children are your own.
I’ve never been too impressed with the idea that prehistoric man didn’t know that sex leads to children, but the complications and high school drama it leads to in The Mammoth Hunters are an absolute low in the series. The misunderstandings are so unbelievable that I was tempted to skim those particular passages. Unfortunately this conflict covers most of the novel. I guess you could see the crisis as necessary for Ayla to completely let go of her past with the Clan and her son who still lives among them, or for Jondalar to accept all aspects of Ayla’s personality (and past). In a way Auel accomplishes quite a bit in this novel, but I don’t think we needed Ranec as a catalyst to do all that.
As in previous novels, Auel weaves in a lot of details on the day-to-day life of the Mamutoi. Leatherworking in particular gets a lot of attention, with ways to produce various shades and decorations being discussed in detail. As usual, Auel’s research is meticulous. The huge amounts of work it took to produce clothing but also things not directly related to survival are staggering when you think about it. Auel also includes some archeological finds; a particular kind of Venus figurine produced by Ranec appears to be inspired by finds in the Ukraine (although Venus figurines were found all over Europe). A recent technical development, the needle, also makes an appearance. The production of it is quite an interesting process if you can overlook your annoyance with it being yet another innovation linked to Ayla.
Archaeological finds don’t give us many clues on what kind of a society our prehistoric ancestors may have had. In some ways Auel does a good job on speculating how they would have dealt with their confinement in a small dwelling during the long winter months. In a way, they don’t deal with tension between people that differently from what Auel describes in The Clan of the Cave Bear, by allowing each other a surprising degree of freedom within the framework of their society. One might see it as overly utopian, a society functioning almost as a perfect democracy, but I think she injects enough darker human traits into it to make it interesting. Auel hints at raiding and even full-scale war and although Ayla doesn’t experience either, the strained relationship with a neighboring people shows that at least some of the Mamutoi have hands-on experience. Their motivations to risk fighting remain unclear, however. I thought it was a subject that could have done with more attention.
The Mamutoi concept of status plays an important part in their interactions with other groups of Mammoth Hunters. It is not a subtle as the idea of status of the Clan, but certainly no less complicated. Status is a source of competition but also leads to jealousy, avarice and even hate. One of the cultural concepts I did wonder about was the practice of setting a bride price, and how this could clash with the freedom of choice the Mamutoi women have to select their mates. The novel does not go into it in much detail, but it sounds like this freedom of choice could clash with the advantages of increased status for the whole group. It seems like something that would have been worthwhile to explore.
I guess that if you can put up with the high soap opera level of this book, there are some enjoyable elements to be found in the book. Personally, I had serious trouble not being distracted by the sheer unlikeliness of the adventures of our prehistoric Mary Sue to enjoy it. There were more than a few opportunities to create some more depth in the story, but Auel ignores those in favor of a relationship crisis the novel could have done without. Given my preferences, The Mammoth Hunters is clearly not a book for me.