19th Jan 2011
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
The first book, and one of my favourite modern classics, is The Clan of the Cave Bear. Telling the story of Ayla, an orphan human girl is found wandering alone and injured by a clan of Neanderthals living in southern Europe 35,000 years ago.
Adopted by the clan’s kindly medicine woman, Ayla grows up believing herself to be a freak; she is unnaturally tall, able to make strange sounds with her mouth and most markedly has a completely different way of thinking to her family.
Ayla struggles with finding her place in the clan, who have a complex hierarchical social structure and communicate through body and sign language alone. Women are completely segregated and treated as secondary to men, who are expected to conform to equally strict gender roles.
The clan also live with a deeply spiritual connection to the world around them; each individual is guarded by a ‘spirit animal’, which guides and protects them. Ayla, who has been given the spirit animal of the cave lion, is looked down upon by other members of the clan who consider it too masculine for her.
The book is beautifully written, gripping from the very first pages, and so meticulously researched with such minute attention to detail that you honestly suspect Auel has invented a time machine, gone back into the past and lived in hiding for a few years in a cave made entirely of skins. Mammoth skins to be exact, with twine made from sinews.
Ayla grows to be a medicine woman, and I recommend that this year, instead of Ray Mears‘ survival guide, you get yourself a copy of the second book in the series, The Valley of the Horses. It’s a far better desk reference on how to use nature to stay alive than anything that Land Rover-driving cheat could do.
The themes of how societies change and adapt, invention and spirituality, and what essentially makes us “human” are explored to a great extent. There are a great range of characters and events that the reader is never bored, even though each book is about three inches thick.
I’m not going to tell you what happens, because it is a massive spoiler to go any further than I’ve already done. But I think it’s fair to summarise that during the course of her journey in the novels, Ayla discovers matches, horse-riding, sewing, shooting with bows, dogs as pets, hangover cures, the 69, and hair conditioner.
The series is also incredibly erotic in places; from the last third of the second book you might as well be reading cave porn. If you don’t currently have a fantasy about being taken roughly in the furs, expect to by the end of The Mammoth Hunters.
Although not every book is as good, in my opinion the first three are the strongest. However, this series was first started in the early eighties, and deserves to be discovered afresh by a new readership.