I read The Clan of the Cave Bear many decades ago and I remembered liking it, being impressed by it, and that the main character’s name was Ayla. But that was all.
When I recently read Pushed Back it reminded me of this book, so I read it again now.
The story plays about 30,000 years ago, the end of the age of the Neanderthals, on the peninsula of Crimea, the same Crimea that was taken over by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The glaciation of the northern hemisphere was at its maximum, reaching down all the way to southern England, covering Scandinavia, and getting to within a few hundred miles of Crimea in what is now Russia.
Ayla is a 5-year-old girl born to Cro-Magnon humans who had just started arriving in Europe at that time. Ayla was away from her tribe playing when a strong earthquake demolished their encampment and everyone perished. The little girl was left alone, naked, in the wilderness. After days of wandering about, just before her imminent death, a migrating troupe of Neanderthals comes along and their medicine woman, Iza, convinces the leader to take the little girl in so she could save her life. And so it comes about that a little girl “born to the Others” is raised in a Neanderthal clan.
The Others look like modern humans, and the Clan people find her ugly. Eventually she is accepted into the Clan and those around come to love and respect her. But it does not come without a price. The Clan’s rules are highly patriarchic and restrictive. The successor to the current leader, Broud, is an ambitious youth, very insecure, and sees Ayla with all her differences as a threat. He develops a deep hatred for her that festers and escalates until the day he takes over.
The book is 468 pages long and delves deeply into the Clan’s society, culture and individual thinking. As a reader, I found myself thinking like many of the main characters, like Brun, the Neanderthal leader, Broud, his eventual successor, Creb, the clan’s magician and spiritual leader, and the many women and children. The author goes into great detail into the lifestyle of the clan, how they live, hunt, eat, celebrate and socialize. Reading this book is an immersion into stone-age life.
Much of the detail, of course, is the author’s conjecture. For instance, she describes the Clan people as speaking mostly using sign language and not voices. She also makes many assumptions about the social structure, and while we are not sure what is fact and fiction, I was fine with it. I didn’t come to read the book to get a historically accurate and factual representation of Neanderthal life, I came to experience what it might have been like, and how it would have felt. In that, the author was very successful.
For a while, as I was reading the book, I became a Neanderthal.
It struck me how much of their life and their culture was guided by “spirits.” Most important decisions, most laws or rules, were based on what the spirits wanted or dictated. Many decisions were made not based on the visible reality of the world, but what they thought the spirits wanted. This caused misery, sometimes death, unspeakable pain and sorrow, and much overall suffering.
One of the conjectures I found hardest to believe was that the Clan people thought that pregnancies were started by totem spirits fighting over the woman’s body. If the outside male spirit won, the woman became pregnant. Sexuality was a casual activity. Any male could beckon any woman or young girl, any time he wanted, and she would simply have to assume the position, so he could “relieve his need.” This was done in open sight all the time. You would think that Neanderthal society, which was active for over 100,000 years without any real progress or change, but was very smart with herbs, medicinal uses of plants, tool making, and the like, would have figured out that it was the relieving of a man’s need into a woman’s womb that might be the cause of the baby getting started in there? Surely they knew!
While I wondered how it was possible that societies could be that much influenced by imaginary powers, imaginary threats, and imaginary disasters, I realized that we have many parallels today.
Millions of people today are still guided by religions and their laws, ceremonies, customs and limitations. In addition, we allow ourselves to suffer from imaginary foes, like mortgages coming due, debts having to be repaid, bad grades in college, titles attained or not attained. All those things are imaginary powers, not unlike the spirits of the Neanderthals, and I found suddenly that my life was not that different and in its own way was driven by the Spirit of the Cave Bear.