A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly—she is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them. Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza’s way of healing, most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority. He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.
Warnings: violence, depictions of misogyny, underage sex, rape, racial implications
Clan of the Cave Bear is a historical fantasy novel from the 80s about prehistoric life and society. It features a cro-magnon girl who is adopted by a clan of neaderthals, and it is followed by five more books in its series. The book was a best seller, capturing many readers imaginations even amidst critical criticisms. There was a film based on it, though the film was a box office flop, and it remains in the cultural memory as part of what has shaped our image of “cavemen”.
The prose is a little dry, and the story has a very slow beginning, so it is hard to get into at first. Once you are past the first few chapters however, it is a fascinating narrative, following the young child Ayla as she is adopted by Iza into the Clan of the Cave Bear. Ayla is a Cro-Magnon, adopted into a clan of Neanderthals, and the story concerns how their differences not only in physiology effect her assimilation into their clan, but also their differences in culture and gender expectations. The clan people have very strict traditions that are inherent to their way of life, traditions that are not inherent to Ayla as an outsider. These are often gendered in nature: Ayla is expected to be submissive and subservient towards men like clan women, and it is forbidden for women to pursue male tasks like training with weapons or hunting. Ayla does not have these traditions embedded in her, and chafes under the expectations. As such, it is a very feminist forward narrative.
This book nails character development and emotional engagement. It covers a long span of time, as Ayla grows up over the course of the story from childhood to young adulthood, and the way the book fleshes her out and grows her character is fantastic. She is a trauma survivor, and the narrative focus is on her responses to abuse and misogyny. Every hardship she faces, she faces with an indomitable strength of self and will, even as she is put through horrible things. The reader really comes to connect with her and her struggle for survival in a world that thinks lesser of her for her gender. The book also does a lot of exploring a variety of viewpoints, putting us in the minds and motivations of the other characters as well, showcasing and exposing the inherent toxic masculinity not only to the antagonist, but to the society at large. This makes for an exceptionally nuanced exploration of these subjects, coming at the topic from multiple angles and allowing the reader to understand the experiences that Ayla goes through.
The worldbuilding is extensive, and the author was clearly well researched in her scope of knowledge of prehistoric plant life, survival methods, and medicinal understanding. There are passages upon passages detailing the kinds of plants and herbs growing near the clan, and what they would be used for and how they would be gathered and preserved, the methods used for cooking or building or hunting, and other aspects of daily prehistoric life. These descriptions are incredibly detailed and give a good picture of what kind of lives prehistoric people might have led and what the challenges might have been to their survival. However, it has been criticized for it’s use of debunked racial ‘science’ in its framing of neaderthal minds and culture as lesser developed or evolved; it is clear from the text that Ayla belongs to a species that is superior to the lesser neanderthals, and this is why she doesnt inherently fit into their backward ways. This aspect might not have been as hard to swallow if Ayla wasn’t aryan, with fair skin blond hair and blue eyes, while the neanderthals are all dark skinned. Interestingly, the neanderthals also possess a kind of psychic ability, ancestral memories shared through the ages and the ability to commune with each other telepathically, all of which contributes to their inability to embrace change or progress.
To be very clear, this is not an explicit or erotic novel. It does have some sex in it, and some discussions on sexual cultural norms within the clan’s society, but it is not graphically described or lingered upon. The sex it does feature is all rape, as Ayla’s principle antagonist takes to using sex as a means to dominate and hold power over her. These scenes are quite distressing to read, there is nothing sensual or intimate about them, it is pure impotent masculine rage at Ayla’s agency. I should also mention that the book details how people in these prehistoric societies reach adulthood at around age 10, so yes, Ayla is subjected to rape and then later gives birth all around the ages of 10-12 which just makes it more uncomfortable. That said, the sexual culture of the clan is very interesting; there are some spiritual beliefs about how sex and pregnancy works and it lends itself to a very interesting system for sexual expression. I do wish that there were more positive portrayals of this system, however, but the prose at least doesn’t linger too long on these scenes.
Clan of the Cave Bear is a fascinating story, and full of a lot of very interesting ideas. At times it is a difficult read, but I can certainly see why it was popular and why it was successful enough to continue into a full series. While it has its flaws, it is worth reading for its picture of feminist expression from the 80s, and the exploration of a trauma survivor’s will to succeed.
Have you read Clan of the Cave Bear? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!