The Mammoth Hunters is the third novel in Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, the unfolding story of a young woman’s life and search for family, identity, and community during a unique period in the evolutionary development of Man. While continuing the series’ emphasis on romance and adventure, The Mammoth Hunters explores various themes of universal nature: Man’s conscious acknowledgment of his evolutionary possibilities; his relationship with his environment; the conflict in reconciling the demands of the individual with the demands of society; and the struggle for personal growth.
It is the author’s intention that each novel in the series stand as a complete and individual story. Nevertheless, the tragedies and successes of Ayla, the heroine of The Mammoth Hunters, can be best appreciated in the light of the two preceding volumes, which also feature Ayla in a central role.
In The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), the five-year-old Ayla is taken and reared by a clan of Neanderthals after a devastating earthquake kills her people and destroys her home. Ayla struggles for acceptance despite the striking physical and mental differences between the Clan and herself—differences which prevent her from conforming with Clan laws and customs. She secretly develops the ability to hunt with a slingshot, obtains the knowledge of a medicine woman, and gives birth to a son of mixed blood. Rejected by the Clan at fourteen, Ayla is separated from her son and forced to leave in search of her own people, the Others.
In The Valley of Horses (1982), Ayla finds refuge from the oncoming winter in a valley, where, for the next four years, she establishes her home. To survive, she perfects her hunting skills and draws upon her innate creativity, repressed while living with the Clan, to make important discoveries (fire from flint stone, riding horseback, medicinal techniques). To conquer her loneliness, Ayla domesticates a wild horse and befriends a lion cub. To communicate, she develops a language with these animals and becomes, herself, a part of the natural environment, efficiently making use of the valley’s natural resources. When she rescues Jondalar (an Other, like herself) from a lion’s attack. Ayla nurses him back to health, learns his language, and falls in love. After years of self-sufficiency, Ayla makes the transition from solitude to companionship. As the novel closes, she and Jondalar journey from the valley to find their own people.
The events of the series’ first and second novels shape Ayla’s character in profound ways. As a female member of the Clan, Ayla is forbidden to learn about and participate in hunting forays. She must seek permission to speak about important matters from male Clan members, and she is obligated to acquiesce to any male’s desire for sexual activity. In addition, Ayla is regarded as a misfit because of physiological and mental distinctions that lead her to feel ugly and misunderstood by the Clan. Despite these obstacles, Ayla proves herself to be a fast learner and innovator, and from her achievements she derives a measure of inner strength.
During the years of solitude that follow these experiences, Ayla articulates and strengthens her innate talents and comes into her own as an individual. Still, the adversities she endured in her early years with the Clan combined with those years without human contact leave Ayla lacking comprehension of a fundamental concept: how a society of her own people might work and what her role in that society might be.
Here develops a major theme in the series that finds embellishment in The Mammoth Hunters: the significance of society to the individual and the ability to maintain individuality while seeking conformity and fulfilling the community’s collective needs.
When Ayla meets Jondalar in The Valley of Horses, the experience of finding and living with a member of her own kind is almost a shocking one. Ayla must learn basic skills necessary for life in the progressive society of the Others: employing verbal language (the Clan used sign language to communicate); sharing thoughts freely; equal dialogue in communal matters; participation in community hunts; and personal sexual fulfillment. These are monumental tasks for Ayla that require the reversal of years of Clan conditioning.
As The Mammoth Hunters begins, then, the promise of a new life brings conflict to Ayla. Leaving an existence of independence, she doubts her ability to be accepted by the Mamutoi, the mammoth hunters, or to achieve personal fulfillment, yet she instinctively knows that neither she nor Jondalar can exist outside a structured society.
Ayla’s unique talents are unfolded to the Mamutoi—her healing abilities; her command of the animals; her hunting prowess; the ease with which she is able to learn their language; her beauty and grace—revealing a woman of strength, mystery, and passion. The enigma of Ayla’s past enhances her mystique, yet it also discourages understanding and acceptance.
With the presentation of this paradox, the author examines the tensions between Clan (Neanderthal) and Other (Cro-Magnon) cultures in Ice Age Europe through the story of Ayla, who experiences both. Through anthropological study, the author reveals the timeless struggle of coexistence among peoples of different cultures.
Paleontologists have determined that, in fact, the Homo neandertalis and Cro-Magnon species were contemporaneous. In the Earth’s Children series, Auel suggests that, while the two Homo species coexisted, there arose a confrontation between the soon-to-be-extinct Neanderthals and the more adaptable Cro-Magnons—a confrontation that is at the heart of The Mammoth Hunters.
When Ayla recounts her experiences to the Mamutoi...
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