Review of The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
The Clan of the Cave Bear
by Jean M. Auel
Sometimes I wanted to throw this book out the window. Or at someone. It's a hefty little paperback, and my copy is old enough that it the pages no longer lie quite next to each other on the spine, so it looks even bigger than it is. I have no doubt that if it were to hit someone in the head, it could seriously annoy that person and even cause a headache. That's often the feeling I experienced while reading The Clan of the Cave Bear. But I wouldn't turn this book into a projectile out of mere spite or desire to cause headaches. No, the temptation was purely an urge to remove the book from my vicinity as quickly as possible.
I apologize for the somewhat lengthy and uncharacteristic paragraph of plot summary that follows. I promise it has a point.
In a world of long, harsh winters and short summers, the Clan of the Cave Bear is a humanoid civilization that worships Ursus for bringing them culture and traditions. There are many clans within the Clan, each of which live in their own caves, have their own leaders and medicine women and mog-urs (shamans). One such clan, led by the fair-minded Brun, is searching for a new cave after theirs was destroyed in an earthquake. They stumble across an injured five-year-old child—but she is not Clan. She is a member of the Others, a strange species that looks humanoid but is not Clan. Brun reluctantly allows his medicine woman to care for the child, whose name is Ayla. For the most part this brings his clan great luck, but Ayla has a lot of trouble fitting in. She fails to conform to the Clan standards for women, preferring instead to hunt and assert herself in ways permitted only to men. And she earns the ire of the future leader of the clan, the impetuous Broud. Through the eyes of Ayla and members of Brun's clan, Jean Auel tells a story about family, acceptance, loyalty, honour, tradition, and yes, race.
There is just one problem.
This book is actually set 30,000 years ago in prehistoric Europe. The Clan are the Neanderthals, while the Others are Cro-Magnons, anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens. While this might not sound problematic—and I admit that I'm probably weird seeing it as a problem—it is the one element of this book that I cannot overlook.
I know this book is insanely popular (especially given its subject matter). I might even have read it at some point in the distant past (14? 16? I don't recall). To be honest, I probably wouldn't have ever picked up this book again were it not for the fact that I inherited it from a friend who moved away. I like historical fiction, but prehistorical fiction is another matter.
Historical fiction is based, in addition to archaeological evidence, primary source material like written records, artwork, and if it's more recent, photography and audio or video recordings. The farther back in time one goes, the sparser the record and the more difficult it is to portray a society "realistically". Often this isn't a problem; it's fiction, after all, and we expect some licence.
Prehistory is different. By definition there are not written records; there are pressure few remnants of artwork, and much to our chagrin, the Neanderthals recorded everything on Betamax or, much later, in whatever format the Zune uses. (And who has one of those these days?) So their voices are probably lost to us forever. We can speculate, but it is very difficult to determine what Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon culture was like from the archaeological record. This gives archaeologists and anthropologists plenty to do when they are not actually in ur fields, diggin' up ur ancestors. It lets them form (perhaps untestable) hypotheses about homonin societies based on what evidence we do have. That's really cool, and I love reading non-fiction books about such theories. The dearth of solid information, however, makes the job of a writer of prehistorical fiction that much more difficult. I'm not going to rule out all prehistorical fiction from this one experience, but Auel has not convinced me The Clan of the Cave Bear is a shining example of the genre.
I actually reached a point where I had to break out the sticky notes and mark a few pages for later reference. This happens on occasion with a book, usually if it's really bad or really good. In this case, the quotations highlight my issue with the way Auel portrays the evolutionary competition between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. In The Clan of the Cave Bear, Neanderthals possess a genetic memory that is nearing its maximum storage capacity:
But as more memories built up, crowding and enlarging the storage capacity of their brain, changes came harder. There was no more room for new ideas that would be added to their memory bank, their heads were already too large. Women had difficulty giving birth; they couldn't afford new knowledge that would enlarge their heads even more.
Suffice it to say, there is no record of Neanderthals, or any hominins, possessing a genetic memory. It's true that The Clan of the Cave Bear is steeped in scientific accuracy; Auel did her research. This is not one of those accuracies. This appears to be something of her own invention (or an idea she borrowed from another theorist), and quite frankly, it breaks the book for me. Despite trite allusions to evolution and nature, Auel's proposed reason for the demise of the Neanderthals runs contrary to very idea of Darwinian evolution:
Her brain followed different paths, her full, high forehead that housed forward-thinking frontal lobes gave her an understanding from a different view. She could accept the new, shape it to her will, forge it into ideas undreamed of by the Clan, and, in nature's way, her kind was destined to supplant the ancient, dying race.
At a deep, unconscious level, Broud sensed the opposing destinies of the two. Ayla was more than a threat to his masculinity, she was a threat to his existence. His hatred of her was the hatred of the old for the new, of the traditional for the innovative, of the dying for the living. Broud's race was too static, too unchanging. They had reached the peak of their development; there was no more room to grow. Ayla was part of nature's new experiment, and though she tried to model herself after the women of the clan, it was only an overlay, a façade only culture-deep, assumed for the sake of survival.
Evolution does not work that way. Species do not reach "peaks" of development and find "no more room to grow". The extinction of the Neanderthals was not destiny.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Auel is saying that Cro-Magnons were "destined" to supplant Neanderthals or that the Neanderthals were necessarily doomed as a result of their genetic memory. She could be saying that. If so, I find it very problematic. I cannot countenance calling this book "historical fiction" and lauding its scientific accuracy if Auel rejects something so fundamental as the theory of evolution.
It's also possible to interpret all of this as an attempt to be poetic—hence, the references to "destiny" and such are the twentieth-century narrator's hindsight being applied to the story at hand. This does not absolve Auel entirely, for it is still an example of sloppy writing, but at least it is, in my mind, a lesser crime. And this is consistent with the narration in The Clan of the Cave Bear in general, which is itself rather inconsistent. The book switches between following one particular character's thoughts from a limited third-person perspective to an omniscient twentieth-century perspective. This is accompanied by a corresponding change in vocabulary. Consequently, all complaints about the science aside, I had a hard time even reading this book. I felt almost like I was reading some kind of children's story. Here's an example:
The women breathed easier. They knew Ayla was inexperienced, and though they had little choice but to allow the girl to treat Brac, they were concerned. A hunter needed two good strong arms. If Brac lost the use of one, he would never become a leader as he was destined. If he was unable to hunt, he would not even become a man, but would live out his life in the ambiguous limbo in which older boys, who had reached physical maturity but had not made their first kill, existed.
I picked that by opening the book at random. The entire book is littered with phrases like, "They knew", "Ayla knew", "Creb knew", etc., which preface exposition by Auel that shows off her extensive research into various prehistorical methods of life. I love that she did all that research, and in some ways it does improve the book. Unfortunately, Auel often chooses to divulge her knowledge in the least engaging way possible.
No, this book works much better when viewed as a fantasy or science-fiction novel about a world far, far away. As I set it up in my plot summary at the beginning of this review, one can easily ignore the references to our Earth of the past and treat the Clan and the Others as two alien species, one with genetic memory that is proving a liability. In this way, the problematic parts of the story's narration become more forgivable, and The Clan of the Cave Bear becomes a fascinating thought experiment. Now, I might be a literary snob, but I'm no literary tyrant, and you are free to regard this book as historical fiction if you like. I wish I could have enjoyed this book more, because it had a lot of potential, and there are some genuinely great things about it—alas, certain aspects of Auel's style and writing were enough to sour the experience for me.