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Take an eerie glimpse into homo sapiens' distant past

Published in THE SNOWMASS VILLAGE SUN  Dec. 16, 1981


Review by Ann Carol Ulrich

People worshiping cave bears... swallowing spirits to conceive babies... going on a mammoth hunt... and women subjecting themselves to the absolute dominance of men...

Those who thrive on historical novels will find The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel an exceptional treat. In the setting of one of Europe's prehistoric Ice Ages, it depicts the life of a lost orphaned child adopted into a tribe of hunter-gatherers.

Although Auel never comes out and says these people are Neanderthals, their stocky bow-legged builds and chinless faces with the brow ridges and sloping foreheads hints that they are indeed the Homo sapiens that preceded the evolution of modern day man. (In a recent issue of "Science 81," however, it was discussed that Neanderthal man looked more like us today. Therefore, the creatures Auel describes probably never existed.)

But, Auel suggests they lived by instinct rather than wit, unchanging and unchanged for thousands of years. Their memories could draw on those of their ancestors.

They were incapable of looking very far into their future. Only the very intelligent of them could count to six. Most could not even conceive of numbers.

Their lives were to change drastically because of the foreign girl who ran across their path after an earthquake destroyed her home and people. Five-year-old Ayla is tall, blonde and slender, one of the "Others," yet her extreme "ugliness" is overlooked by Iza, the compassionate Neanderthal medicine woman who saves her. It is only by the belief that Ayla brings good luck that she is accepted into the clan.

Many of the long-standing customs and rituals of the clan are challenged, and some even broken, by Ayla as she struggles to grow up in a society that does not understand tears, a smile, or laughter. Her ability to think creatively, to use insight, not only sets Ayla apart and above the members of the clan, but is her salvation when she breaks the most forbidden taboo.

For a woman to hunt or to even consider touching a weapon is unthinkable, yet Ayla uses a sling with more skill and marksmanship than the clan's oldest, most adept sling-hunter. And when she saves the life of the leader's grandson from a hyena, her secret is out and Ayla must face the dreaded "death curse."

The characters in this novel are vivid, feeling people not so different from ourselves. Brun, the leader, is dynamic, fighting to make the right decisions, but clinging to the ingrained traditions that bind the clan.

Creb, the Mog-ur (magician), deformed and overpowering, has a special fondness for the strange girl who has become like a daughter to him. Life has been hard on him, yet Creb is wiser than anyone else in the clan and senses the superiority of Ayla's mind.

Then there is Broud, son of Brun, soon to become leader. He is proud, brutal, and jealous of Ayla. He will stop at nothing to relieve his resentment of her, even to the point of violent rape -- which leads to the birth of Ayla's son, Durc.

Half Clan and half "Other," Durc belongs to neither group, yet he is the seed of humanity, and the whole point of this novel. He carries in his genes the promise of the future. The Neanderthal race was destined to die out, yet part of it was to live on through this individual.

You can't help but sympathize with these people who could have formed the earliest links to our past. You will find The Clan of the Cave Bear one difficult book to put down.

 

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