Earth’s Children: Book I
In our first years at secondary school, one of my classmates was much taken with the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. I remember being very impressed by the thick novels she was carrying around, and decided that I would have to read the books myself one day. And now, twenty years later, I’ve finally got round to it. In the aftermath of The Inheritors, I decided it was time to make a start on this other famous story about contact between Neanderthal man and the new race of Homo sapiens.
When a five-year-old girl is orphaned by an earthquake, she finds herself alone and unskilled against the full cruelty of nature and the elements. Weakened by hunger and loss of blood from an attack by a cave lion, she is providentially discovered by a clan of Neanderthal who, much against their leader’s better judgement, carry her along with them. Under the care of the clan’s medicine woman Iza, and the protection of their powerful holy man or mog-ur, Creb, the child begins to return to health. She finds herself surrounded by a group of people who not only look very different to herself, and who find her as bizarre and unsettling as she finds them, but who also have an entirely alien concept of communication. Accustomed to speech, the child has to abandon her chattering and learn the complex system of gestures and movements with which her new community express themselves.
She must also adapt to a new set of social and cultural mores. She learns that any man can command any woman, and must be obeyed; that a woman must sit before a man and wait to be given permission to speak; that water coming from the eyes is a strange sickness that doesn’t afflict those around her; and, most of all, that they are all part of the Clan, the great wider community of people united by their common spirits and history. The child, whose real name is too complex for Creb and his people to articulate, is given the closest approximation they can master: Ayla.
As the years pass, the clan’s initial suspicion of Ayla fades and she finds a warm and loving home with Creb and his sibling Iza, and Iza’s daughter Uba. She learns to communicate as fluently as any other child, and proves an adept student of medicine and healing. But an underlying wariness remains. She may be an adopted member of the clan but, no matter what anyone does, she is not Clan: she is born to the Others and, as Ayla grows older, nature gets in the way of nurture. She loves to swim, while those around her are nervous of the water; she can manage more intricate dexterous tasks than they can; she isn’t as strong as the native women; and, most crucially of all, she doesn’t seem to understand the ways in which she challenges all tradition. Chief among these is her desire, from a young age, to hunt, which threatens to go against every rule of Clan society and risks bringing down the fury of the spirits upon the whole community. But Ayla is determined, creative and adaptable in ways that the Clan can never be: she is a microcosm of her flexible, problem-solving race, and her very existence is a sign that time is running out for them.
This isn’t necessarily a flowing book. It’s not one of those novels where the language is so fluid and beautiful that you find yourself captivated by grace alone. If anything, it’s a hard book: matter-of-fact, almost scientific in its nature. And it’s dense: although, by my current standards, 400-odd pages is not long, it took me a relatively long time to read. Every page is thick with ideas and information and the whole world that Auel describes is so unfamiliar that you have to take it slowly. When you do, it is a deeply satisfying and rewarding book. There’s just so much here. So many ideas, so much to process!
I know that Auel has won praise from archaeologists and anthropologists for the way she evokes Neanderthal society and, as someone without a shred of anthropological training, I find it hard to see where ‘what was’ blends into ‘what might have been’. Presumably much of what we learn about social structure and customs is imaginative reconstruction? How can we possibly know anything beyond what burial sites indicate to us? And how much is actually known about the Neanderthals?
The concept of the different brain-use fascinated me, because the idea of a vast racial memory to be tapped into by all members of the Clan sounded purely fantastical. But is there any way it could have been true? Without getting into the realms of Jungian psychology, is there evidence that creatures with these larger memory stores are capable of remembering through their blood – a bit like a memory version of the information passed on in genes? I assumed it was a dash of the mystical, or perhaps a misconception born from the hallucinogenic quality of ritual drugs, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if that were true? Something that I did appreciate, very much, was that Auel constantly made the point that Neanderthals were not less intelligent than Homo sapiens – indeed, their brains were larger – but it was a different kind of intelligence: an intelligence focused on the past, rather than the future. Both physically and psychologically they were a race that had been outpaced, as it were, not because they were under-evolved but because evolution had taken a different fork in the road.
And of course it’s very interesting to think about the different ways that Neanderthals are depicted in Auel and in Golding. In retrospect, Golding’s depiction of clan life now looks very simplistic and his characters don’t seem to have been graced with the same profound intelligence that Iza and Creb have in Auel’s novel. Engaging they may be, but Golding’s characters still seem to be struggling to tame and comprehend their world: Auel’s, by contrast, are adept at making bowls, slings, tools and all manner of garments.
I wonder whether Golding is showing us Neanderthal life at an earlier period, perhaps at the very beginning of the divisions between Neanderthal and Homo sapiens, whereas Auel depicts a scene many millennia later, where contact between the two groups was less unknown (though still rare) and the Neanderthal had developed their society and skills a little more? The map at the beginning of the novel – which makes it clear that the story takes place on the narrow land bridge separating the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, with the cave situated near modern Sevastapol – gives dates of 35,000-25,000 BC. What astounds me is how recent, in the greater evolutionary scheme of things, that really is.
It’s been a thought-provoking and illuminating experience to read this book and, even if I wasn’t swept away by the beauty of the language, I found the questions and concepts utterly absorbing. Have many other people read this series? If so, what did you make of it all? Do you, perhaps, have a greater understanding of archaeological anthropology which might help to answer some of my musings above? I’ll certainly carry on with Ayla’s story and, indeed, have the second volume already checked out from the library. I want to find out if Ayla succeeds in tracking down her own people, and how her Neanderthal upbringing is going to affect her ability to communicate if she does find them. (No spoilers please!) But I won’t read it straight away: I’m going to move on to something a little different first, to refresh my mind and to eke out the magic and wonder of Ayla’s remarkable world.
Next in this series: The Valley of Horses