Random Play: “The Clan of the Cave Bear”

If a novel gets me interested in science, it’s got to be something really special. I have been a freak for literature, theater, and history almost since birth, but anything involving biology has been a rocky road. In fact, I managed to flunk Intro Bio in my freshman year of college, when in order to pass I would only have had to score an average of 50 on each of four tests. You get the point – I can’t be bothered to learn how the universe works. So what kind of thing breaks through my aversion to scientific facts? Certain songs recorded by They Might Be Giants (see “Mammal” and “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas”) and certain bestselling books written by Jean M. Auel. Her “Earth’s Children” series may single-handedly have convinced millions of poorly educated Americans that the theory of evolution is not some kind of sick joke, but actually makes more sense than anything else that’s been suggested.

I wouldn’t recommend using Auel’s novels as your main source for information about the descent of man – stick with Darwin for that – but she sure does make prehistory seem awesome. The books, beginning with 1980’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, take place between the Ice Ages, focusing on a Cro-Magnon orphan who is adopted by Neanderthals – no, I don’t mean Tucker Max and friends, I mean the early humans with the low foreheads and chimp-like posture. In an irony reminiscent of The Twilight Zone’s “Eye of the Beholder” episode, the girl, called Ayla, is mocked and pitied by many in her adoptive tribe for being freakishly tall and fair-haired – in other words, for looking like Daryl Hannah, who played the role in the (boring) movie version. She is also at a disadvantage in the Neanderthal world for having actual intelligence – the ability to learn through observation and practice – as opposed to inborn “memories” that tell her what to do. For women, these memories are supposed to include knowledge about childrearing, preparing food, and having doggy-style sex with whichever man indicates his interest (foreplay and the missionary position have, apparently, not yet been discovered). Ayla doesn’t get it, but has to get with the program or be ostracized.

Auel’s choice of protagonist is a stroke of genius: it allows her to craft a classic “outsider” narrative around a character who falls squarely within the parameters of the American beauty paradigm. Thus Ayla is simultaneously a non-threatening traditional heroine, worthy of love and sympathy because she’s just so durn pretty, and a feminist superwoman, striving to express her authentic self in a society that fears change. Ayla not only challenges her “Clan’s” worldview by learning (gasp!) to hunt and by giving birth to a half-Cro-Magnon, half-Neanderthal child (there is evidence that this may have occurred in real life), she also manages to invent an impressive array of really useful things, including horseback riding and surgical sutures. In the second book of the series, The Valley of Horses, she survives on her own after being cast out by the Clan (and forced to leave her son behind), domesticating not only the world’s first pet horse, but also a lion cub. She’s got it all – a cozy cave with all the most up-to-date technology, loads of property, and no noisy neighbors. What more could a Paleolithic girl want? Oh, of course – a dude with a giant prick.

Happily, Auel obliges. The joyless sex scenes of Clan of the Cave Bear are more than made up for in Valley of Horses, in which Ayla meets her soul mate, Jondalar, a sensitive maker of, um, tools. The narrative switches back and forth between them as he journeys across the Pleistocene steppe, stopping here and there to make sweet, sweet love to a few lucky ladies, while she leads a solitary life in her lonely, um, valley. Jondalar is the total package – talented, kind, gorgeous, and spectacularly well-endowed – but he just hasn’t been able to find the right woman. When he meets Ayla, a hot blonde living all by herself with a horse and a lion, he thinks he may have found the Mother Goddess herself. Not only is she totally self-sufficient, even commanding the beasts of the earth, but she makes him feel like he’s the only man in the world. Of course, as far as she knows, he is the only man in the world – at least the only man who can stand fully upright. Ayla saves Jondalar’s life after he gets a little too close to her housecat, and in return, he teaches her that men and women can have sex facing one another (thankfully, the Cro-Mags have figured out the whole clitoris thing – no wonder they outlasted the Neanderthals). But these two are more than friends with benefits, they’re meant for each other: at last, Jondalar has found the woman who can accept every inch of his “prodigious manhood” (that’s an actual quote), climax like an erupting volcano, and beg for more. And he only had to travel, by foot, across half the known world.

Now, I was hooked by the first book, but the addition of long, detailed scenes of prehistoric lovin’ to the copious details about animal skinning and flint knapping was certainly appreciated. Let’s just say that the descriptions provided came in handy later in life: when my first boyfriend asked me, breathless and incredulous, “How did you learn to do that?”, I told him he had Jean Auel to thank. Unfortunately, Auel started becoming more and more interested in the sex scenes and less and less interested in anything resembling a reasonable story. Her third novel, The Mammoth Hunters, follows Ayla and Jondalar as they leave her comfy but stultifying valley and have more sex in a number of different locations. Also, Ayla has sex with the only black guy in eastern Europe and domesticates a wolf. Badass! This would have been a perfect place for the series to end, but there were just a few more variations on precivilized nookie (in a grotto, on a mountain, “Let’s play woolly mammoths”) Auel needed to share with her readers…so on it goes. Reportedly she’s working on a sixth and final book. Let’s hope Ayla can still walk by the end.

Like I said, I’m not exactly a science nerd, and I find the many strands of evolutionary biology dizzying in their complexity. Still, the anthropological detail and plain old soap opera drama of The Clan of the Cave Bear and its first few sequels sucked me in, enough so that I even dressed as Ayla one Halloween, complete with a protective amulet and a (chicken) bone in my hair (though that’s a little more Pebbles Flintstone than Homo neanderthalensis). There’s virtually no physical resemblance between me and Ayla as described by Auel, nor have I been orphaned, sent into exile, tamed wild animals, or seen the future of the human race in a vision. But at the core, she and I both want what all women want – to be loved, valued, and accepted just as we are, and not judged for our perceived deficiencies, eccentricities, or past mistakes. And to climax like an erupting volcano.

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  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    The first book was somewhat of a phenomenon where the follow-ups started losing the audience in increments.

    Of course, it's fun to imagine how Dr. Seuss would have handled it:
    Would you do her next to flames
    Would you do her on the plains
    Would you, near the stony pass
    Would you do her pedicure?

    What did you think I was talking about?

  • Heather

    That was SO funny! I read the series when I was, oh, 14? Back in the mid 90s. Valley of the Horses had pages falling out from the heavy creases in the dirty parts where my classmates would pass it around during English class. WAY better than Romeo & Juliet, yo. Alas, I have found my new love….Outlander!!! Jamie Fraser makes Jondalar look like a puss. He would have never let Ayla have sex with some dude…he would have split his head in half with a scottish broadsword, givin her a spankin’, then gave it to her in a way the only Jamie Fraser could. I digress. I just wanted to say I appreciated your article :)