The Clan of the Cave Bear: Jean M. Auel

★★★★

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.

Buy the book

Next in this series: The Valley of Horses

20 thoughts on “The Clan of the Cave Bear: Jean M. Auel

  1. Helen says:

    I read this as a teenager and can barely remember it now, so I’m afraid I don’t have any insights to offer! I do remember enjoying it, though. I also read the second book and possibly the third, but I must have lost interest after that. Maybe I should try re-reading them – I think I would probably get more out of them now than I did when I was younger.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      They did seem to be very popular round about the time we were teenagers. And I would say definitely worth a reread, the first book anyway – although probably you have so many books lined up that you don’t have time for gratuitous nostalgia trips!

      I’m keen to get onto the second novel in the series and it’ll be interesting to see how the story as a whole develops.

      • Kara says:

        I actually own the whole set of 6, I just love to read and reread over and over, the paperback ones are my second set as I read them until they fell apart, this second set is now starting to fall apart and I plan to get this set replaced with hard back, the one hard back that I own has lasted since it first came out, that one is Shelters of Stone. I was completely saddened to learn that Land of the Painted Caves would be the final book in the series. My hope is that Mrs. Auel will write about Jonayla and Durc and Ura, also any other children that Jondalar and Ayla have, possibly even their grandchildren as well.

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    For some reason or other, I just cannot bring myself to feel any interest in stone age stories, so I never read this one myself, and probably will skip it even in spite of your endorsement (I might around to the Golding novel at some stage, though). But I’ve done a bit of reading on Goodreads about this series, and it seems this series gets very much a “love it or hate it” thing starting with volume 2, so I’m very curious what will be your take on those. 😉

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I never had any desire to read them either, which is probably why it took me twenty years to read this, but Golding really impressed me and made me think about the difficulties for an author in writing about a culture with such different conceptual and communicative habits. Of the two, I would say that Auel is more thorough and engaging, but Golding gives a clearer idea of the strangeness of this other lifestyle.

      Will keep you posted on my thoughts on the later ones!

  3. Sandra Mullen says:

    This brought back a few memories! I also read the first four books in the series when they were first published in the 80s and 90s and loved them with a passion. There was then a long gap of twelve years before the fifth book came out. I bought it and tried to read it and couldn’t get into it at all. I don’t think it was anything to do with a change of approach from Auel; I felt I was simply in a different stage myself and the books no longer resonated. Reading your review makes me want to start the entire series from the beginning again!

    This is my first visit to your blog; I’m looking forward to reading more of it. Thanks for a stimulating review!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks so much Sandra, and welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I have the second novel waiting to be started at the moment and I’ll be interested to see how things develop. Why not start the series again? Then you can read along with me and we can discuss as we go 😉

      • Sandra Mullen says:

        Ha ha, I am very tempted! But alas, my shelves are already groaning under the weight of unread titles, or books demanding a re-read. As a very recent arrival in the world of book blogs, I’m having a wonderful time – but as a result of it, the list of books I’m discovering or re-discovering is growing at an alarming rate! I just need more time 😉

      • Sandra Mullen says:

        You’re on! You’ve already started me off – delving back through the years to see what I recall and why I responded as I did. I shall await your review of The Valley of the Horses with great interest 🙂

  4. Isi says:

    Hi Leander! Sorry for being so late to this post.

    I read the five first books one after the other, but like the commenters above, it was so many years ago. I remember being fascinated about the differences between Neardenthals and Cro-magnons, and the reasons why they are extincted. First of all, the communication between them seemed impossible!

    Since I read it when I was younger, I never questioned the issue about if it’s true everything that is told in the book, but I’ve read that the author has spent almost all her life in archaeological excavations, studying these ancestors of ours, and I suppose she has a quite accurate idea of “what was”.

    I feel obligated to warn you about the rest of the series: book 2 and 3 are fine; you’ll follow Ayla’s adventures trying to find a place for herself, but book 4 is BORING (with capitals, yes). Book 5 is OK, and I haven’t read book 6 although I have a copy, because fans of the series (like me) were disappointed when it was published in Spain, and I was afraid I would be too. As said above, it seems like these books must be read only in a certain period of time in your life… You are in the right time or you are not.

    Finally, I wanted to tell you how I discovered the series 😀

    It was the first time I travelled to London when I saw book 2 (The valley of horses) at a book shop in the airport, and I bought it in English just because of the title (I love horses!). So I came back to Spain with the book and then, searching through a *very* primitive internet, I found out it was the second book in a series. I purchased book 1 and then I read them all in a raw, but I never read that one in English, poor thing.

    Kisses!

    PS. Sorry for the longest comment ever!!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I love long comments. If I had my own way, they’d all be essay-length so that I can get into deep discussions with people. So thank you, Isi, for making my evening with this one 😉

      Yes, it does seem that Auel is very well regarded by the archaeological establishment and that makes the books even more interesting to me than if they were based solely on the author’s imagination. But it’d be very good to know exactly what evidence she’s using – maybe a companion volume or an article somewhere, just to give people a bit of context.

      OK, I consider myself warned about Book 4, and thank you for that, but if I get that far in the series I might as well finish, so I’ll have to speed read it so that I can get onto Book 5 as quickly as possible 🙂 Thanks too for sharing your story of discovery, which I love!

  5. Silke from Germany says:

    Dear Idle Woman,

    I come from time to time to you blog and enjoy your writing.
    Now, what did I see: you have discovered one of the favourite series I read as a teenager! I wish you a lot of fun with it, but let be warned: here is coming not only fresh information how live was so long ago, but some soft porn, too. For me as a teenager I was eager to read these scenes and they enlightened me about this and that. 😉 But as a grown woman these repeated scenes (they get more and more in the following books) get a bit boring and somewhat unnecessary.
    Please excuse any mistakes with your language.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Silke! Thank you so much for commenting (your English is very good, much better than my German) and I’m delighted to hear that this series was a favourite of yours too. I also appreciate your warning about what’s to come! It’s good to be prepared… 😉

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Oh my goodness, Silke, I’m only a few chapters into The Valley of Horses and the elaborately described sex scenes have started already! I miss the anthropological mood of the last book already…

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