As an avid historical fiction fan with a particular interest in prehistoric times, my discovery of Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series was followed by a quick visit to Amazon and a cart full of books. The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first in Auel’s six-book series set in prehistoric Europe during the late Pleistocene Epoch (35,000 to 25,000 years prior to present-day).
The series follows Ayla, a Cro-Magnon woman who we meet in The Clan of the Cave Bear as an orphaned five-year-old following a severe earthquake that destroyed her home and killed her parents. After a near-death experience with a Cave Lion, Ayla is found dehydrated, starved, and injured by a group of Neanderthal’s known as ‘The Clan.’ The Clan does not normally associate with Ayla’s people, who they know as ‘The Others,’ but the leader allows Ayla to be taken into the care of the medicine woman.
The structure of The Clan is centered around their religion of spirits and totems. The Mog-ur is the clan magician who is both feared and respected among Clan members. He communicates with the spirits and performs ceremonies of varying significance for the Clan. Although he is not the leader, no decisions are made without referring to him and his meditations. Brun is the leader of the Clan, and his son is Broud, the future leader. The highest ranking woman of the Clan is Iza, the medicine woman. Within the Clan there is a theme of male superiority, with all women ranking below the men with the exception of the medicine woman. Brun’s clan is the highest ranking clan among the Neanderthal clans within the region, and Mog-ur is the supreme magician of all Clans, although each individual clan has their own magician.
Ayla struggles to become accustomed to life in the Clan, coming from a different form of people. She has the ability to communicate vocally, but the Clan does not, so she has to adjust to their hand signals to be able to communicate. Also as an outgoing person with a strong personality, she struggles to be submissive at all times to other members of the Clan, especially Broud.
As time goes on Ayla becomes more accepted by the Clan, but also slightly intimidating with her strong Cave Lion totem. She is viewed as a good luck charm of the Clan, having discovered their new cave home soon after they took her in. In addition, she saves a young woman of the Clan from drowning and Broud’s son from death by killing a Hyena that was about to kill him.
She also creates trouble by teaching herself to hunt with a sling when hunting is forbidden by woman of the Clan and hiding away with her child after he is born and declared deformed, which means that he must die. For both instances, the punishment is a death curse, where the person is out casted from the Clan and must fend for themselves or succumb to the elements. Brun takes pity on Ayla and does only curses her for a month, then allows her back into the Clan. These lax punishments are the final straw for Broud, who has felt shadowed by Ayla ever since she was brought into the Clan.
When Brun gives leadership to Broud he startles the Clan by immediately giving Ayla a death curse, forcing her out of the Clan without her son, Durc. Ayla’s powerful personality and tenacity throughout the novel leaves you confident that her life will continue without the presence of the Clan, as she journeys to find her own people.
The world that Auel created in The Clan of the Cave Bear inspires the imagination and brings the reader into the past with vivid descriptions and intense scenes that paint a picture of prehistoric Europe and the people and animals that lived during that period. Published in 1980, her research began in 1977 for a ‘short story’ that expanded into a six-book series spanning over 30 years. Auel’s strong writing drew me in with the first sentence and didn’t let my attention waver throughout The Clan of the Cave Bear, leaving me with no choice but to immediately pick up the second in the series, The Valley of Horses. While I think this book would be especially of interest for historical fiction fans and those interested in biology, the strong female main character would also prove interesting for other fiction fans.