When I was 12, we spent my Christmas vacation driving from NorthWestern Montana down to San Diego to visit family for the holidays. Most of the time was spent at my great-grandmother’s house and I got super bored. I’d already read all of the books I brought with me on the drive down and so went looking through Great Mama’s book cupboard to find something to occupy myself with. There were various romance novels (dismissed for ickiness), a tattered old copy of The Story of Little Black Sambo (read many times when I was really little…by the way, I still think of using tigers for butter every single time I eat pancakes) and the first four books in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M Auel. Since I knew I had no interest in the Harlequins, I decided to read The Clan of the Cave Bear and see if I wanted to follow up with the other books. I read them all in the two weeks we were there.
I still question my great-grandmother’s enthusiasm for letting me read these books at that age. The first one (the one we’re talking about today) wasn’t so bad, but the next few were/are pretty graphic – especially for an adolescent. That’s my warning to you right now. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow (heh) of the sexy cave situations, but a big part of these books is the sex (which is why they’re being featured on Trashy Tuesday, dur!) – if that bothers you, maybe stop reading?
Right, so, the book opens with a little blonde, blue-eyed Cro-Magnon girl going out for a swim in the early morning. While she’s in the water, there’s an earthquake, which causes the cave she lives in with her family to collapse. Not a whole lot of detail was gone into about the aftermath of the earthquake, but I always wondered if she actually bothered rooting through the rubble or if she was just all “Oh well, they must be dead! Time to be moving on!” I guess if she’d actually spent time looking for them, we wouldn’t have the rest of the story, so disbelief needs to be put on hold for a bit. She wanders around lost for several days/weeks. Mostly she follows the course of the river she was swimming in and eats plants she’s familiar with, but when she leaves the river she wanders into cave lion territory and is chased into a little burrow. The lion tries to get to her, but she’s managed to squirrel herself away pretty well, so she only gets scratched on the thigh instead of eaten. She hides out in the hole for a few days until she’s sure the lion is gone, then crawls out – only to collapse from dehydration/starvation.
Cut to a travelling band of Neanderthals. They’re looking for a new cave because theirs was also destroyed in the earthquake. Iza is a middle-aged (at 20), pregnant medicine woman. She has super high status because of her mother and grandmother, plus her brother Brun is the leader of the clan. Her other brother
Darryl Creb is the Mog-ur, which is like a shamany-type-thing. Iza sees the little girl near death with buzzards hovering around her, and gets permission from Brun to pick her up and bring her along.
The clan is very much a patriarchal society, women must ask for permission from a man before they “speak” (in quotes because the Neanderthals in this story haven’t fully evolved speech capabilities, they use a complex form of sign language to communicate with a few grunts for emphasis, along with naming words). Iza brings the girl along with them on the hunt for the new cave and heals up her lion wounds, wondering how the girl managed to escape from a fully grown cave lion at such a young age. The Clan (capitalized to indicate all clans of Neanderthals) is a deeply spiritual group, every one is given a protective totem on their naming day, and Iza thinks she must have an extremely powerful totem to have survived on her own for so long.
The girl manages to give them her name, which none of them can pronounce, so she agrees that Ayla is close enough. Once Ayla is healed enough to be running around, she discovers a new cave (which is absolutely PERFECT – spacious and it was once inhabited by their holiest of spirits, the Great Cave Bear) and they all move in.
Creb (the mogiest of all Clan mog-urs and worthy of capitalization because he was chosen by the cave bear [meaning attacked] at a young age) works on teaching her their sign language, and appeals to Brun to allow her to be adopted into the clan at the ceremony where they formally accept the cave as their new home. The clan primarily avoids the cro-magnons (or Others, as they’re referred to) because of hostilities between the two groups, so Brun is a bit wary of accepting her at first. Only after Creb explains that it must be the will of the Ursus – since the Other girl found their new home – does Brun relent. Ayla has obviously been chosen by the Cave Lion since she already bears the Clan marks for that particular totem. Everyone welcomes her, except for this little douchey kid Broud. He’s the son of the leader and is totally jealous because the weird Other girl stole his first kill manhood ceremony thunder just by being adopted.
She is raised as Iza’s daughter, and learns the skills of the medicine woman. She has to work really hard at everything because she doesn’t carry the racial memories that members of the Clan have. The majority of Brun’s clan think she’s a bit stupid because she doesn’t need to just be reminded of things, she has to try to remember them. Iza does her best to teach her to be a dutiful woman of the Clan – always mind the men-folk, anticipate their needs (of the sexual AND sandwich making variety), NEVER EVER touch weapons (women who touch weapons will DIE), do all of the work except for hunting and so on and so on.
One day while Ayla is out gathering herbal remedies for Iza, she stumbles upon the men practicing hunting with slings. Broud sucks and since he’s such an asshat, Ayla is overjoyed to see him fail. Once the men leave, she decides to give it a try to see if she can do any better. Of course she rocks it right away. But wait! What about the thing that women will die if they touch weapons? Dude, it’s gotta be her protective cave lion totem! Cave lions hunt, therefore she should hunt too, right? Oh, but she can’t hunt stuff that would be used for food because no one can know that she’s learned how to use a weapon, so she starts hunting carnivores that hang out around the cave. One time, she’s almost killed by a lynx, so she develops a new method utilizing two stones instead of just one…and she masters that too.
Brun’s clan makes its regular trip out to the Crimean Peninsula to fish and one of the kids gets snatched by a hyena. Everyone is standing around panicking because the hyena is already out of range and feeling bad about the kid that’s about to get eaten when Ayla whips out her sling and drops the hyena with two stones. It was kind of an “oops! Did I do that?” moment, because she has just outed herself to everyone and for suresies a Death Curse is on the way. Everyone is so totally grateful that she rescued the kid, though, that they don’t know what to do with her. Finally, it’s determined that she will die, but it will only be a temporary death. Wait, what? Yeah…in the Clan, they don’t actually kill you. They just pretend that you’re not there. If they see you, it’s only because it’s your evil spirit trying to take their spirit with you to the spirit world.
Of course she survives the Death Curse, and when she returns to the clan a month later, she is named Woman Who Hunts and is allowed to hunt with her sling from then on. Broud has been jealous of Ayla ever since she was adopted, and has beaten her several times. One day he is out hunting, but comes back with nothing. When he sees that Ayla successfully brought something down, he’s even angrier than ever, but knows that if he beats her again he’ll no longer be in the running to be leader when Brun steps down. He decides a new way to cure her of insolence will be to give her the signal that he needs to “relieve his needs” with her, and rapes her just to humiliate her. Repeatedly. Enough so that everyone else starts talking about how weird it is that he wants to do this ugly chick when his mate is ready and willing. Ayla hates it (dur!), but eventually stops fighting back. When she does, he gives up – but it’s too late because she’s already pregnant. This was before people knew that sex led to pregnancy, so everyone is shocked that there was a male totem in the clan strong enough to defeat her cave lion.
She gives birth to a half-breed child that everyone thinks is deformed, and she knows that Brun is going to have her kill her son (deformed children are not allowed to live) so she runs off with the baby, intending to force Brun to accept him on his naming day. She realizes forcing Brun’s hand is a bad idea, so she comes back early and the baby is allowed to live. Half-Clan, Half-Other, Durc is able to vocalize like his mother, but he still looks a little weird. As a punishment for her insolence (this was a word used repeatedly that began to grate on my nerves), she’s told she can’t hunt until Autumn. That Summer, they head to the Clan Gathering. There are 10 Clans present (a little over 200 people) and there Ayla meets a Clan woman who has another child of “mixed spirits.” It’s a girl, so they agree that their children will mate once they’re old enough.
Ayla is now a fully fledged medicine woman (at 11) and since Iza was too sick to come to the Gathering, she must prepare the
hallucinogenic sacred beverage for the mog-urs. She doesn’t make it right and they leave some behind, so since it’s not supposed to be wasted she drinks the rest. Tripping balls, she wanders through the host cave until she comes upon the mog-urs soopersekrit ceremony where they’re travelling through their shared memories of the past (all the way back to the beginning of time) and eating the brains of one who was killed chosen by Ursus earlier that day.
Creb realizes she’s there and they go on a journey through the past AND future of the Others too, and Ayla sees the world as it will appear at the time the novel was written (1980). She doesn’t know what to make of it, and Creb is scared, so it puts a distance between them.
They return to the home cave just in time for Iza to die, but before she does, she tells Ayla to leave and find herself a man of the Others like her. Once Iza is dead, things get steadily worse for Ayla and Creb’s health begins to decline even more. For the next few years, she takes joy in her son but not much else.
The day that Broud is made leader, Creb also hands over mog-ur duties to his acolyte. One of Broud’s first acts is to put a permanent Death Curse on Ayla. It is done and there is another earthquake, which kills Creb. Everyone pretends they can’t see Ayla, but she gathers her things and heads off into the great wide paleolithic open.