When younger, I was rather vain of my prodigious reading, and often pleased that I had read authors whom no one had ever heard about. (Well, atleast no one I knew). Vestiges of that remain, leading me to hunt for newer writers or atleast writers whose work is new to me. About two years ago, I was exchanging notes with a colleague on this, and I asked her to recommend me some books totally new to me. She tried four or five names, all of which were familiar, and then she asked me, “How about the Earth’s Children series?” “Earths Children, whats that, sounds like some new age mumbo-jumbo”, I said. “What, you don’t know Jean Auel - Ayla, The Clan of the Cave Bear?”, she said and smiled a superior sort of smile. I was getting my just desserts for my childhood smugness!
I managed to get her to part with the Clan of the Cave Bear, and since then, I have gone on to read all the books in the Earths Children series – The Valley of the Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, and the last one released a few years ago, The Shelters of Stone.
These novels are all set in the prehistoric ice age (Around 25000 years ago), played out in a backdrop where early modern humans co-exist with the last of the Neanderthals. While the setting is prehistoric, these are nevertheless fiction, and not field studies. Ayla, the main character, is left orphaned and separated from her modern human tribe as a young girl. Picked up by a group of travelling Neanderthals who call themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear, she grows up in a harsh environment where the clan must keep together with its own unique social codes and strategies to survive.
What I like about these novels is the rich, clearly well researched depiction of early human life, with its struggle to evolve in an environment where predators still outnumber human beings. The human dimension is also well etched, as the novels follow Ayla’s rise to womanhood, her natural traits which conflict with those of the more rigid clan codes and the relationships that she forges with the clan members, as well as the Others. (which is how modern humans are described by the clan). There are rich doses of emotion when Ayla leaves the clan to find her own way in the world. This is a crucial juncture, since early human society was fundamentally dependant on community living for its very existence, where a young girl’s striking out on her own could be life threatening.
The language can get monotonous at times, especially as one progresses through the series, but it is usually compensated by the richness of setting, and the turns and twists of the plot itself. I hear there is to be one final book which will complete the Earth’s Children series. Hope that comes in soon!
For those who have already read the books, there is an Earth's Children quiz here though it hasnt been updated for some time