Out of the Cave

The extraordinary image of girlhood at the center of Clan of the Cave Bear.

Illustration by Chip Zdarsky.

Illustration by Chip Zdarsky

Heavy as the hammerstones with which its heroine makes her flint tools, the 500-page The Clan of the Cave Bear made a serious impact on the culture when it was published in 1980. Jean M. Auel’s Ice Age tale about a young Cro-Magnon girl who grows up in a clan of Neanderthals was a juggernaut of a novel: an instant best-seller, a nominee for an American Book Award, and the foundation for Auel’s six-part Earth’s Children series, which has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide. But mention The Clan of the Cave Bear and the Earth’s Children books to anyone who read it as a kid, and they’ll immediately start talking to you about the novel’s sex.

Not just any sex, mind you. Hot Cro-Magnon “Pleasures.” Neanderthal doggy-style, initiated by special hand signals. And a whole lexicon of giggle-inducing anatomical euphemisms like “nodule,” “warm folds,” and “throbbing manhood.”

But to remember The Clan of the Cave Bear as paleo-porn is actually to misremember it. The novel is somber, harrowing, and decidedly unsexy. Set between 25,000 and 35,000 years ago, The Clan of the Cave Bear follows the young Cro-Magnon Ayla, orphaned at age 5 after an earthquake, as she struggles to fit in with her adoptive Neanderthal clan. As one of “the Others,” Ayla is physically and intellectually more evolved than the people of the clan, who use hand signals instead of speech, who are incapable of learning and invention, and who therefore require oversized brains to store all the clan’s collective knowledge. Although she is adopted by two powerful members of the clan, the medicine woman and shaman, Ayla struggles to conform to the rigid expectations placed on clan women.

And while there is sex in The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla enjoys none of it. Raped at 10 by her clan nemesis, Broud, Ayla endures forced sex until the age of 11, when she gives birth to Broud’s child. Because of her child’s oversized head, Ayla has a painful pregnancy and nearly dies in childbirth. When she’s 14, Broud casts her out of the clan for good, and the novel closes with her leaving behind her child and setting off alone.

So where are all the warm folds and the hot sex? They arrive at the very end of The Valley of the Horses, Auel’s 1982 sequel. Which means that by the time 17-year-old Ayla actually experiences the “Mother’s Gift of Pleasure to Her Children” with her Cro-Magnon mate-to-be Jondalar, we had all slogged through 900 pages of fire-making, flint-knapping, and hunting/gathering.  That’s a whole lot of pages to get to the naughty bits our friends had all promised when they pressed the books on us.

So what really captivated us about The Clan of the Cave Bear? Why did that novel resonate so strongly and compel us to keep reading? What really made the book a touchstone for teens much younger than the book’s intended audience?

At its core, Cave Bear is speculative fiction about a young girl’s survival and resilience in an elaborately imagined authoritarian society. Sound familiar? It’s the same narrative engine that powers The Hunger Games, Divergent and the myriad novels of the young-adult dystopia explosion of the last half-decade. Auel may not have known she was writing about a precursor to Katniss Everdeen—but that’s how a whole generation of teens received Ayla.

In her excellent New Yorker essay about the YA dystopian boom, Laura Miller draws on the work of academic Kay Sambell to draw a distinction between the dystopias of novels written for adults and those written for children, noting that the YA versions are “not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.” Miller notes that “the typical arc of the [YA] dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection.” Ayla realizes over time that her clan is oppressive and incapable of change. Despite her commitment to it, she begins to wonder if there’s an alternative way to live. As she is cast out at the end of the novel, Ayla decides to undertake a journey to find “the Others” and a better life.

Unlike Katniss Everdeen’s Panem or Tris Prior’s post-apocalyptic Chicago, the society Ayla lives in is not the dystopia our current world could evolve into. It’s the dystopia we evolved out of.

Literary dystopias are always steeped in the cultural anxieties of their time. Published in 1980, right on the cusp of a backlash against the feminist gains of the previous two decades, The Clan of the Cave Bear is deeply concerned with gender roles in society. Not only is the clan brutally patriarchal, but the roles of men and women are utterly biologically determined. Clan men and women are born with different sets of knowledge. Since clan members are unable to learn and remember new information, gender roles and norms are unchangeable. Ayla has no such limitations, and she learns how to hunt and make tools, transgressions against the gendered order of the clan that result in repeated punishment and shunning. Ultimately, though, Ayla’s ability to learn and do both women’s and men’s work is key to her own survival and safety; indeed, Auel makes it clear that it’s key to the evolution of humankind.

It’s telling that Auel wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear at 40, after her career in business stalled out when she hit what she describes as a “glass ceiling.” Time and again, after Ayla is told women can’t do something, she does it anyway—better than the men. It’s easy to point out how over-the-top this depiction of girl power feels now, but this was an extraordinary representation of girlhood for the 1980s, especially for young female readers. Early in the novel, clan leader Brun remarks on Ayla’s difference and sums up her appeal to readers: “Everything about her was unprecendented, and she was still a child.” By the time she reaches the age Katniss and Tris are in the first books of their respective series, Ayla has already become a skilled hunter, a gritty survivor, and a protective mother.

YA dystopias tend to end with some note about a hopeful future. Auel does one better than that in The Clan of the Cave Bear by making Ayla the embodiment of that hopeful future. The novel reaches a trippy fever pitch during a ritual in which shamans link their minds together and eat the brain of a young man slain by a cave bear to absorb and disperse his courage.  Ayla stumbles into this cannibal mind-meld and has a vision of the extinction of the Neanderthals and the future of her Cro-Magnon species. Her vision also includes our present:

She found her own way back to herself, and then a little beyond. She had a fleeting glimpse of the cave again, followed by a confusing kaleidoscope of landscapes, laid out not with the randomness of nature, but in regular patterns. Boxlike structures reared up from the earth and long ribbons of stone spread out, along which strange animals crawled at great speeds; huge birds flew without flapping their wings.

 Ayla’s telepathic time travel to the 20th century is a neat trick that invites us to see ourselves as her descendants. Even as the novel ends with Ayla cast off and alone, we understand that she’ll be all right. And we understand that our world will be all right, too, because we are just as resourceful and imaginative as Ayla is. It’s no wonder that Cave Bear ended up on so many recommended reading lists for kids despite its depictions of sexual violence and frank treatment of topics like contraception and abortion: It’s a truly triumphant tale not just about one girl’s coming of age, but about humanity’s.

But let’s not forget about the hot sex, because it is important in understanding not just why Auel’s series was so memorable but how it went astray.

With the publication of The Valley of the Horses in 1982, Auel made a sharp turn toward romance. The Ice Age becomes oddly (and, likely, ahistorically) utopian, full of Great Earth Mother-worshipping Cro-Magnons with egalitarian societies. The novel details three years Ayla spends alone, inventing horseback riding and taming a cave lion. It also introduces Jondalar, a handsome, sensitive, well-endowed Cro-Magnon on his own epic journey, who eventually needs rescuing by Ayla after a run-in with her pet cave lion.

Jondalar does have sexual encounters with other women in The Valley of the Horses before he meets Ayla. Beyond being merely titillating, these scenes are there to demonstrate Jondalar’s bona fides between the furs, and to convince us that he’s gentle and generous enough to give Ayla what she deserves. In that way, Ayla’s “First Rites” are a total wish fulfillment for readers: By this point we adored and identified with Ayla so strongly, suffering with her through Cave Bear, and we really wanted this for her—and for us. Ayla’s sexual fulfillment struck a weird, deep chord: the idea that abuse and loneliness could be overwritten by gentleness and pleasure.

It’s striking how tedious the Earth’s Children books get as they get further away from The Clan of the Cave Bear. Ayla embarks on a career as a medicine woman, has some romantic entanglements before getting married and having a daughter, and tries to combat prejudice against Neanderthals. The books are brimming with scenes of “Pleasures,” but it’s all noble and grown-up and terribly dull. Because, after all, the true pleasures of The Clan of the Cave Bear are not in the sex we all think we remember, but in Ayla’s adolescent suffering and perseverance which makes her sexual awakening feel like such a revelation.

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