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I recently read The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel, the finale of the "Earth's Children" series. The series started with the bestseller, Clan of the Cave Bear, which I enjoyed very much. It got me thinking about the whole series, and how it began so promisingly, but ended so badly.

In case you are somehow unfamiliar with the Clan of the Cave Bear, it's set in Ice Age Europe (about 30,000 years ago), and is the story of a modern human (Cro-Magnon) orphan girl, Ayla, who is adopted by a clan of Neanderthals. The Neanderthals call themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear, so "Clan" can also be used as a synonym for the Neanderthals in general. (For brevity's sake, I'll use the term "human" to refer to modern humans, as opposed to Neanderthals, though they are clearly human, too.) Ayla's foster parents are the clan's medicine woman Iza and the shaman Creb. It was carefully plotted and quite enjoyable. The Neanderthals use sign-language to supplement their limited spoken language, and are born with memories that help them function in the clan. Ayla doesn't have the memories, so must be taught by rote. Her mother trains her to be a medicine woman, the only women of the Clan who have some status of their own. Although Ayla lacks the race-memories, her mind is able to handle abstractions in a way the clan can never grasp. I liked the relationship between Ayla and Creb, the one-eyed, one-armed shaman. The main conflict is with the clan leader's son Broud, who is jealous of the attention that the alien Ayla receives. The book ends with Ayla's banishment from the Neanderthal clan as a young woman; she is forced to leave behind her half-Clan son Durc. Her adoptive mother has previously told her to seek others of her own kind.

The second book, The Valley of the Horses, came out two years later (1982). Its first two-thirds suffer from a major structural defect. The chapters alternate telling Ayla's story, living on her own, and the journey of two brothers (modern humans, as are everyone from here on unless otherwise noted), Jondalar and Thonolan. The brothers' journey east along the Danube allows Auel to introduce human cultures. But there is no Ayla, who we know is the protagonist, so these chapters seem like a distraction. Then we go back to Ayla, but she has no humans to interact with, so that story is kind of empty. She does, however, raise an orphaned foal to be her horse. And discover how to start a fire by striking flint and pyrite. Finally Jondalar and Ayla meet up. Together they invent the atlatl (spear-thrower). This book ends when the pair meet a band of hunters from the tribe called Mamutoi.

The Mammoth Hunters (1985) continues Ayla's story as she is adopted by the Mamutoi tribe. We get to meet another human culture, obviously based on real artifacts. Unfortunately, the main conflict of the story is pure romance novel: Ayla becomes betrothed to the wrong man, though we all know she is meant for Jondalar. This is not very interesting. But the relationship between Ayla and this group's shaman is well done (though there is something of a miraculous coincidence involving the shaman). The group also has adopted a half-Clan orphan boy, who provides some touching moments. The book ends when Ayla decides to leave with Jondalar on his long journey to his home in the west.

There was a five-year wait for The Plains of Passage, which, while telling a fairly interesting story of their journey, was bloated. It should have been about 30% shorter; the paeans to Pleistocene diversity go on too long. Auel really needed a better editor. But there are some good sections, with exciting conflicts and thoughtful resolutions. The book ends with their arrival at Jondalar's home cave, which Ayla had seen years before in a vision.

The fifth book was supposed to end the series. There was a twelve-year wait for The Sheltering Stones, but in fact, it wasn't the finale. The book had grown so large that it was split in to two. This did not bode well. It is the story of Ayla integrating in with Jondalar's people, the Zelandonii. The problem is, nothing happens. Oh, minor problems arise--and then they are solved. The climax is that Ayla agrees to join the "priesthood", since otherwise she will not be able to continue her work as a healer. Yawn.

You'd think the second half of the final book would have come out pretty quickly after that, but no, another nine-year wait. And, unfortunately, not much happens again. Apparently Auel spent those years doing more research. There is waaaay too much visting of sacred caves in The Land of Painted Caves. It's like Auel filled many notebooks with cool scenes and ideas, and had to put them all in her book, whether they advanced the story or not. And then, near the end, the plot takes an unbelievable turn into romance-novel land again. Worse, the story reuses plot details from the third novel to a surprising extent. The one interesting idea is what happens to society when the people realize that sex is actually required for pregnancy, and that the men have a more-than-symbolic role in procreation. Ayla has believed this for a long time; near the end of the book she has a revelation and manages to convince her fellow shaman of it, who then reveal it to the Zelandonii at large. This, it is explained, will lead toward monogamy. But this comes at the very end of the novel.

There is also some very strained and at the same time hoky wordplay to come up with term "father".

There are other problems with the last two novels. At one sacred cave, it is mentioned that Neanderthals sometimes also visit. I was suddenly excited that they might make another appearance. But no. The complete lack of Neanderthals in the last two books, I realized, is very disappointing. (There are a couple of minor characters who have some Neanderthal blood, but they are really of little consequence.) The first book, obviously, was all about the difficulty of a human trying to fit in with Neanderthals. In the second and fourth books, there are brief but important encounters between Neanderthals and modern humans. In fact, I think my favorite section of Plains of Passage is when Ayla and Jondalar render assistance to a Clan couple. I don't recall any pure Neanderthals in the The Mammoth Hunters, but there is the half-Clan child who plays an important role.

Also, Ayla and Jondalar have horses, and a pet wolf. The usefulness of the these animals is apparent to everyone. Why hasn't anyone else tried taming a horse or wolf? Years have elapsed by the time this book ends.

There may be enough plot here to make one decent-sized book. These two sprawling tomes are not worth the slog. And they need more Neanderthals.

Some other random thoughts:

After reading the first couple of books, I thought Auel would take up the story of Ayla's first child, Durc, again, but that was not too be. The physical distance between her Clan home and Jondalar's home would make any connection or casual journey unlikely. However, some Mamutoi come to visit the Zelandonii, so it's not impossible. The journeys obviously perform an important function of spreading new technologies.

It is interesting that when Auel started her series, the question of human-Neanderthal interbreeding was wide open. And the sequencing of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA initially suggested that it had not occured. It is only with the very recent sequencing of Neanderthal nuclear DNA that interbreeding has been reasonably established.

When I was a boy reading popular works on paleontology, the Neanderthals were often depicted as a step in evolution, a bridge between Home erectus (Java Man, etc.) and modern humans (Cro-Magnon). Later, I was taught that Neanderthals were in fact Homo sapiens, just an offshoot, H. s. neanderthalensis, while we were Homo sapiens sapiens. The general consensus now is to treat them as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis), but one which contributed some genes to we moderns.
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