John Pfeiffer

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

["The Clan of the Cave Bear"] tells the tale of a band of prehistoric hunter-gatherers living on the Crimean peninsula near the shores of the Black Sea…. These people, at large some 35,000 years ago, are representatives of a dying breed, among the last of the Neanderthal line.

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The band faces new tensions, new troubles, which will ultimately prove its undoing. It has just taken in one of the "Others," a 5-year-old girl foundling named Ayla whose parents have been killed in a recent earthquake…. She is a member of the Cro-Magnon species destined to replace all Neanderthals everywhere. (p. 7)

The Neanderthal people are doomed by the structure of their brains. Intelligent and sensitive, they have prodigious memories, care for their weak and handicapped and bury their dead with grave talismans for use in an afterlife. At the height of secret totemic ceremonies, they can probe deep into the racial past, communicating with one another telepathically. But having only rudimentary frontal lobes, the brain centers responsible for foresight and analysis, they are incapable of adapting to major changes. They have reached an evolutionary dead end, living very much as their ancestors lived 100,000 years ago. Everything they do has been done already. They cannot innovate, and that is where the growing girl of the Others shines.

The people are amazed, one spring day near the inland sea, to see Ayla plunging into a swift sturgeon-rich stream to rescue a drowning child. "No one had ever been saved before, once they had been swept away." And no one had ever wielded a sling in rapid-fire fashion, inserting and hurling a second pebble as soon as the first had been released. But Ayla teaches herself that trick, thereby breaking a taboo forbidding women even to touch hunting weapons, and she uses it to kill a hyena in the act of dragging off a baby boy.

Every success brings Ayla a step closer to tragedy. If she had only been less courageous, less outstanding and admired, the story of her life with the people might have ended happily. She earns the respect of all members of the band—all but one Brun's son Broud, insecure, jealous and vicious, next in line to be the band's leader and half-aware that he is not the man for the job. He hates her to the point of beatings and rape. Things come to a head suddenly. There is a grim struggle between Ayla and Broud, another earthquake and a bitter final showdown.

When it comes to certain details about the appearance and cerebral apparatus of the Neanderthals, anthropologists may grumble about "The Clan of the Cave Bear."… Even literary license cannot justify endowing the Neanderthals with brains having "almost no frontal lobes." Also, they were not bowlegged, and it is rather unlikely that their vocal cords were less developed than ours, or that such a difference would have seriously affected their ability to communicate vocally.

In the last analysis, however, such points do not really matter. There was a great and subtle gap between the Neanderthals and their successors, people like ourselves, and Mrs. Auel has caught its essence beautifully. She has written an exciting, imaginative and intuitively solid book. She is planning five more prehistoric novels (the series is called "Earth's Children"). I look forward to reading them as I look forward to her own evolution as a writer and her versions of human evolution. (pp. 7, 20)

John Pfeiffer, "Prehistoric Characters," in The New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1980, pp. 7, 20.

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