I recently finished reading the first five volumes in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children sagas, and became so engrossed in the lives of our prehistoric ancestors that I found it hard to get anything else done until I had finished the series. These are awesome books, and my readers know I don’t use that word lightly!
This serial story in five volumes is set in the Stone Age, and describes the daily lives of ancient man in a way that makes us realize that we are not so different from our ancestors who first made fire by rubbing two sticks together. Although these tales are fictionalized adventures and we must grant the author some poetic license, Ms. Auel has done extensive historical research into the Stone Age, and gives accurate and interesting accounts of the living conditions, cultures and traditions of people who lived 25,000 years ago. The adventures of our prehistoric ancestors are thrilling and suspenseful, and the vivid descriptions of flora and fauna that existed at the time make the prehistoric scenery come to life.
The central character is Ayla, a Cro-Magnon human child whose family is killed in an earthquake. Left alone, she wanders through the wilderness until she is found and ultimately adopted by a Neanderthal tribe, who call themselves “Clan.” The saga follows her life as she is eventually “cursed” with death for her transgressions within the Clan society, and forced to leave her adoptive family. Being cast out of the community was an almost certain death, since prehistoric man was rarely able to survive the wilderness on his or her own.
Ayla sets out to find the “Others,” as the Clan called them, the type of people that she came from. She becomes a gifted healer and natural leader. Most people she meets on her adventures come to love her despite her odd and mysterious ways, although she does gain a few enemies, too.
Ms. Auel’s descriptions of how tools, clothing, shelters and household objects were made are carefully detailed, and you can imagine the ancient artisan chipping away with stone and bone. Stone Age people could take bones, rocks, wood, grasses, fur and sticks and make serviceable platters, bowls, knives, boxes, boats, furniture, baskets, clothing, and whatever else they needed for comfort and survival. The bladders of animals were used as containers for water, wine, oils, and other liquids. Every part of an animal was used in some fashion. As a community, they would hunt and forage during the warm seasons, and with good fortune they would be able to preserve enough food to last the winter.
Our cave man ancestors ate truly organic foods from nature, and they had to make some effort if they wanted to eat. They had to go out and hunt or gather it, then prepare and preserve it with primitive methods and tools. No Cuisinarts or gas ranges, or drive-up windows. Can you imagine? It took an entire village to chase down, kill, and butcher a mammoth. Now we don’t even have to leave the house, we can have everything we want delivered to our door as our bottoms grow wider.
When hunts were successful often enough the villagers would have enough food to last through the winter, which gave them leisure time to embellish clothing with decorations and create other artwork. Your clothing often denoted your status; embroidered and embellished designs told who you were and which tribe you were from. Utilitarian pieces often meant that the community had meager winter supplies and was hunting and foraging as much as the weather would allow. They were too busy trying to survive to indulge in creative past times. Maybe those times haven’t changed much; we still judge others by what they wear.
Ancient humans revered the earth, and were grateful for the natural resources that sustained them. I think we’re heading back in that direction, now that we’ve already mucked up everything. Pantheism was the prevailing religion and man is still a spiritual being, whether he wants to admit it or not. Although ceremonies and traditions varied between tribes, and may have been gruesome, ancient men had a reverence for life. Our modern religions are so wrapped up in pointing fingers at each others’ differences that we’ve forgotten our main purpose on this planet is to love and care for each another. Overzealous and self-righteous Christians drive people away from Christianity, peaceful Muslim families are looked upon with suspicion, Jews are blamed for causing their own Holocaust, and atrocities are still being committed in the name of a Superior Being.
By now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this, and quite frankly, so am I. What started out to be a book review has turned into a diatribe on the modern human condition. So I will come to this conclusion: I have to wonder if we are really any different than our prehistoric ancestors.
The Earth’s Children sagas are engrossing tales that will make the reader pause and consider the enormous environmental and technological changes man has made on this planet, but how little man himself has actually evolved. We still want the same things as ever; food, shelter, someone to love and love us, and to know we have a place in this world.
Synopses of the Books in the Earth’s Children Series:
Clan of the Cave Bear (1980)
The orphaned Ayla is found and adopted, and grows to womanhood with the “Clan.” More highly advanced than her Neanderthal counterparts, she often doesn’t understand their ways but tries to fit in. As the young girl reaches womanhood, she is “cursed” for defying Clan law and is driven away to live alone in the wilderness, practically a death sentence in prehistoric times.
Valley of the Horses (1982)
Using her innate intelligence and creativity, and the skills she has learned from the Clan, Ayla survives alone in the wilderness for three years, with a horse, a cave lion and a wolf that she had raised as young animals and who were her only companions. She saves the life of Jondalar, one of the “Others” who is on a long journey, and injured while traveling through the area near Ayla’s cave. The first one of the “Others” that she has seen since she was orphaned, she is fascinated by Jondalar and continues on his journey with him. Eventually, they fall in love.
The Mammoth Hunters (1985)
On their journey, Jondalar and Ayla visit the Mamutoi, or Mammoth Hunters. The villagers are fascinated by the tame beasts, Ayla’s unusual manner of speaking, and her creativity in inventing useful objects. Through a misunderstanding, Ayla and Jondalar become estranged, and Ayla almost marries a man of the Mamutoi. Romantic issues are resolved, and the couple decide to move on, toward Jondalar’s home village.
Plains of Passage (1990)
Ayla and Jondalar continue on their journey, facing dangerous adventures and dangerous people while also encountering old friends (of Jondalar) and making new ones. Because of her Clan upbringing and unusual ways, Ayla continues to draw the attention of people who would be her enemy. The amazing woman does manage to win most of her enemies over, in time.
The Shelters of Stone (2002)
Jondalar and Ayla reach the end of their journey, where they prepare to marry while awaiting the birth of their child. As ever, Ayla makes both friends and enemies among the villagers. Her new family are the leaders of the village, and the Zelandonii (spiritual leaders) recognize Ayla’s potential as a spiritual leader as well as a healer. All Ayla wants to do is get married and raise her family, but fate has other plans for her….
In spite of rumors circling the globe, Ms. Auel is not ill or deceased. She’s just taking her time on the sixth book in the series, but it is uncertain how soon the book will be published, or what it will be titled. Whether the series will continue beyond the sixth book is still speculative.