I suppose The Clan of the Cave Bear should be called “prehistorical fiction” rather than “historical fiction.” It takes place in humanity’s ancient past, before the invention of writing and historical records. The first in a series of six, this novel follows Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl (an ancestor of modern Europeans), as she is adopted into a group of Neandertals.
The Neandertals (which are either a subspecies of Homo sapiens, or a different species of Homo—experts aren’t sure) are destined to die out, and the earth will of course be populated by the descendants of Ayla and her people. However, none of that has happened yet. The Clan, as they call themselves, is aware of the presence of the Others (as they call Ayla’s people), but there is little interaction. Despite the Clan’s dependence on tradition, they allow Ayla, an injured orphan, to live with them, and even overlook her odd appearance (a flat face, a high forehead, and straight rather than bowed limbs) to accept her as a Clan member.
The author, Jean Auel, seems to have done an enormous amount of research to create this ancient world of hunters and gatherers. The novel is filled with descriptions of the flora, fauna, and scenery that Ayla might have encountered. Tools, cooking methods, clothing, and herbal healing are all described in detail.
Auel had to use her imagination to create the rituals, language, and customs of the Neandertals. In her version, the Neandertals use their large brains for memory—they are even able to pass memories down to descendants, with the result that they all have a shared memory going back to their beginnings. However, their smaller frontal lobe means that they have difficulty with innovation and abstraction. The smartest man in the group can count only up to 20, and he is stunned by how quickly Ayla picks up on the concept of numbers. The Clan members are also puzzled by the range of her vocalizations (the Clan uses sign language along with a few spoken words), and the tears that drip from her eyes when she cries.
The main questions of the novel are: will Ayla be able to fit into Clan culture? Will she be able to find a mate, given how “ugly” she looks? Will she incur the curse of the leaders, given her penchant for bending and even breaking Clan rules and traditions? Because she has no shared Clan memory, Ayla must rely on her own ability to learn. This ability is both a blessing and a curse: it helps her survive extreme situations, but also gets her into those extreme situations in the first place, when she does things that no Clan woman would even think of doing.
In addition to Ayla, the novel features another strong and wise woman: Iza, the healer, who adopts Ayla and teaches her to become a medicine woman.
I was fascinated by this novel, but I did think it was too long. Some concepts were repeated too many times. Some rituals were described in too much detail. Some scenes were marred with too much inner thought and/or unnecessary dialogue. Still, I found this book to be a thought-provoking feat of imagination. The next title in the series is The Valley of Horses.