1992-04-29: Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear (1984)

            by Jean Auel (1936-)

This novel is set about 30,000 years in the past, in a time and place when the Neandertal race was succombing to the newer Cro-Magnon. The story involves a clan of Neandertals who come across a small girl, born to the ‘Others’, but whose family has died in an earthquake. The clan’s medicine woman adopts the girl, who is raised to womanhood in the ways of the Clan.

The major theme is the conflict between the rigid ways of the Neandertal and the more flexible ways of the Others. This is paralleled by a conflict between the ways of males and the ways of females. The process of coming of age is another theme.

The premises on which the story is built include a supposed fundamental difference between the brains of the two races. This allows the older race to have memories of every significant event or fact that has occurred in the line to be inherited by its members, in a kind of pseudo-telepathy of shared memories. Parts of the story depend on the hocus-pocus. There is even a gratuitous episode of revelatory precognition.

Auel uses anachronistic language in describing the actions, thoughts and language of the people. In addition, though their language is almost entirely in sign, the dialogue is full of nuance that is incredible (to me); at times she seems to deliberately constrain the dialogue to what is (or would be) expressible in sign, but other times does not.

She (rightly) emphasizes the impossibility of the people entertaining certain notions that are outside of their traditions and ways of thought, but (wrongly) later shows them with these notions.

The best parts of the book describe the relations between the ordinary clan members, and the different relations between the clan’s shaman and medicine woman and the girl of the Others. The weakest parts are concerned with the shaman’s realization of the inevitable end of the Clan and survival of the Others, and the relations involving the son of the leader.


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