#92 The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel
The Clan of the Cave Bear is a historical novel by Jean M. Auel about prehistoric times set before the extinction of the Neanderthal race after 600,000 years as a species, and at least 10-15,000 years after Homo sapiens remains are documented and dated in Europe as a viable second human species. It is the first book in the Earth’s Children book series which speculates on the possibilities of interactions between Neanderthal and modern Cro-Magnon humans.
The novel references the “coming” advance of “the polar ice” sheets, setting the story before 18,000 years Before Present, when the farthest southern encroachment of the last glacial period of the current Ice Age occurred. Auel’s timeframe, somewhere between 28,000 and 25,000 years B.P., corresponds with archeological estimates of the Neanderthal branch of humankind dying out some time between 30,000 and 22,000 years B.P..No definitive evidence yet exists that the Aurignacian tool making culture that existed until about 26,000 years was Cro-Magnon, making it possible that the civilization was in fact “the last hurrah” of the Neanderthals’ civilization and racial existence.
The culture and loci of the better matches for Auel’s portrayed homelands for the Cro-Magnon cultures of her works starting from the plains of the Ukraine and Danube valley to across the Alps to western France, which is consistent with mainstream archeological thinking. Her intermingling of Neanderthal peoples is in a timeframe after their extinction is suggested but muddled by the uncertainty of archaeological dating and can be accepted as an appropriate use of poetic license.
The Clan of the Cave Bear was initially met with reluctance by publishers when Jean Auel approached them with her plan for a series of novels set in prehistoric times. Although meticulously researched, the sheer length of the original manuscript made many publishers unwilling to take the risk on the untried author. Indeed the Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those novels that is either loved or hated. I personally enjoyed it. It frequently had me asking about the gene interaction between the Cro-Magnon and the Neanderthals.
The story concerns a young girl named Ayla who is orphaned by a natural disaster and then adopted by a group known as the Clan. Ayla is very different from the Clan: physically, she is blond and blue-eyed and the people in the Clan are stocky and dark; she is expressive, sensitive, and smart and they are dour, plodding, and cold. Historians and anthropologists immediately reacted to Auel’s book, maintaining that her assumptions about Neanderthal life were not realistic. In fact, Auel seems to be basing her view of the Neanderthal on the racially motivated “bad” science of late nineteenth-century French anthropology. It is precisely this “bad” science and overt racism that has prompted many anthropologists to denounce the novel.
One of the most prevalent themes in The Clan of the Cave Bear is the idea of “nature versus nurture”; in other words, is the way one behaves more controlled by genetics or environment? Auel insists that The Clan survives only by following the traditional rules and gender roles to the point where they have become incapable of change and cannot adapt to new situations. For example, Clan women do not hunt simply because women do not hunt: they do not want to hunt. She also describes the Clan woman as naturally submissive and physically unable to learn new things. Ayla’s presence forces the Clan to question their society and their traditions. Ayla seems driven to rebel against the Clan’s traditions because she cannot logically understand them. Although she behaves as a model Clan woman, there is a bounce to her step and a refusal to bend her will to that of anyone else.
In my opinion, it was very well written. Auel’s writing style brought me vivid mental images as I ploughed through the chapters. I cannot wait to start the next book of the set.