May 26, 2010

Reviews: Jean M. Auel's "Earth's Children" Series

If you are looking for something a little different in the way of historical fiction this summer, I have a suggestion. Check out Ms. Jean M. Auel's "Earth's Children" series of books. There are currently five volumes, with a sixth on the way (and potentially a seventh). These books are the bildungsroman of a young Cro-Magnon woman, named Ayla, who lives and travels across much of what is now eastern and western Europe some 30,000 years ago during the Ice Age.

In order, the series includes the following: The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of the Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, and The Shelters of Stone. Collectively, it is an enthralling tale that causes you, more than once, to lean back and spend some time reflecting on our own human origins. While this probably can't be considered great literature, Ms. Auel's books all have well thought out plots and are well written. I just finished reading the entire series for the second time; and I enjoyed it even more this time around.

The first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, is particularly fascinating as this tells the story of how the little four- or five-year old Ayla, an orphaned anatomically modern human, is found by a clan of Neandertals in what is now the Crimean Peninsula. She spends the next six or seven years with the clan and becomes one of the clan's medicine women. Ms. Auel does an excellent job of portraying the type of life these archaic humans may have; and it was a harsh one. Ms. Auel is known for meticulously reviewing the latest anthropological and archaeological data as she writes her novels, and this attention to detail is clearly evident. She has carefully crafted a very plausible account of what life may have been like for a group of Neandertals living in a cave on the Crimean Peninsula near the Black Sea. Not only in this first volume, but in all of them, Ms. Auel spends a great deal of time carefully, and quite accurately, describing the ecology and environment of the regions where her characters are living or passing through. There is loads of really interesting information about Ice Age flora and fauna.

The next book is The Valley of Horses, and this is really two novels in one. On the one hand, it documents Ayla's trip north into the frozen Ukrainian Ice Age steppe country as she leaves the clan and sets out to find others like her. The other story told in the novel is the description of the journey of two young men, Jondalar, and his brother, Thonolan, as they travel from what is now western France across Ice Age Europe and ultimately ending up in Ayla's little valley. Ms. Auel has the young men meeting, and interacting with other small groups of humans and Neandertals during the course of their long journey. In the meantime, young Ayla is making some extraordinary discoveries on her own. As you might well imagine, there is a convergence of the two plot lines in the novel with interesting results.

The Mammoth Hunters is the third book in the "Earth's Children" series. This book is largely the tale of Ayla's and Jondalar's time with the 'Mamutoi' peoples (Mammoth hunters) of the Upper Paleolithic Ice-Age steppes of the Ukraine. While the plotting of this novel, in my opinion, did bog down a bit with the amount of time spent on the romantic triangle between Ayla, Jondalar, and Ranec, the dark-skinned Mamutoi ivory carver; I was at the same time amazed at the amount of anthropological and archaeological detail that Ms. Auel interpreted and utilized throughout.

There have been significant archaeological discoveries and research carried on associated with several very important Upper Paleolithic sites over the past thirty-years in this region of the Ukraine. Major early human ice-age settlements have been discovered and excavated at Sungir, Mezhirich, Mezin, and Kostenki. All of which indicate the presence of sophisticated peoples that lived in multi-family dwellings and actively hunted the large animals that occupied this incredibly harsh environment. Ms. Auel's novel really does provide a wonderful window into a time period so long past (approximately 30,000 years ago). Her careful attention to detail and historical accuracy is evident and impressive as one reads about how these peoples may have constructed their dwellings, hunted the large animals for meat, gathered plants for food and medicines, and exchanged goods and new ideas with other bands of humans. This novel gives us some valuable insights into a part of that vast rich human heritage during a period of time, so long ago, during the Ice Age in eastern Europe and western Russia.

The Plains of Passage is the fourth novel in the series, and is one of my favorites. This novel picks up with Ayla and Jondalar, Whinney, Racer, and Wolf all leaving the summer camp of the Mamutoi peoples and beginning the long journey back across the Ice Age steppes of the Ukraine to the delta of the 'Great Mother River' (Donau/Duna/Danube River), and thence across eastern Europe all the way back to Jondalar's Zelandonii peoples in what is now southwestern France. Along the way the travelers have all kinds of interesting adventures, with Ms. Auel doing a superb job of describing just how difficult a trip of this magnitude might have been some 30,000 years ago for two human beings.

As she always does, Ms. Auel brings significant archaeological and paleo-anthropological information into her narrative. For example, she has Jondalar being captured and held by a band of peoples known as the "S'Armunai." The fictional S'Armunai camp is actually based upon the Upper Paleolithic site, Dolni Vestonice, in what is now the Czech Republic. While a prisoner of the S'Armunai, Jondalar witnesses a bizarre and enigmatic burial of three young people in a single grave. This strange burial was actually excavated at Dolni Vestonice and archaeologists are still trying determine what the backstory might be. Ms. Auel offers a very plausible hypothesis. If you're interested, 'Google' "Dolni Vestonice triple burial," and you'll find lots of really fascinating information.

Along the trip Ayla and Jondalar have the opportunity to meet numerous bands of other Cro-Magnons, or anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and also have several encounters with small bands of Neandertals (Homo sapiens neandertalensis). Ms. Auel uses these encounters to shed more light on the differences and similarities among these Ice Age inhabitants and their ways of life in different parts of prehistoric Europe and how they used the different natural resources in their regions. Interspersed throughout the novel is a very interesting portrayal of the mythologies and spiritual practices that may have been important to these peoples; at the apex of which is the notion that all life are considered to be the children of the "Earth Mother."

In some respects, this novel really reflects and represents the great journey of the human race 30,000 years ago during a period of profoundly difficult adversity because of the environmental conditions. Additionally, and somewhat sadly, it reflects the beginning of the end for the very long-lived archaic human species -- Neandertal -- as this amazing closely-related cousin of ours was destined to be completely extinct within the 5,000 years or so, after living on the planet for several hundred thousand years. It is worth reiterating that each of Ms. Auel's novels in the "Earth's Children" series are thought-provoking from the perspective of better understanding our own human origins; as well as just being wonderfully dramatic and entertaining historical fiction; and The Plains of Passage is no exception.

Well, we have now come up to the last book in the series, so far. The Shelters of Stone is entirely set in what is now southwestern France and the region occupied by Jondalar's peoples, the Zelandonii. Ayla and Jondalar have finally reached the end of their long journey, and can now become mated and finally settle down. In usual Jean Auel style, she has incorporated much of the state-of-the-art anthropological and archaeological data and evidence from the great cave dwellings that have been found in that area -- including the great Caves of Lasceaux, with the amazing art painted on the limestone walls inside the caverns. This book also goes into much greater detail about the potential social and cultural interactions that may have existed among the great number of human occupants of these huge cave dwellings. Just as it is today, it is difficult providing adequate food, water, and other necessities of life for a large number of people concentrated in a relatively small area. I really found her fictional depiction of spiritual awareness among these upper paleolithic peoples to be interesting. I can certainly see how Ice Age shamanism and spiritualism could have naturally evolved into the more organized religions that we see around us today. Frankly, I am not sure that there is a difference at all.

I think this series of books -- The Earth's Children series -- are important. This series has enabled all of us to enjoy a fictional, but fairly accurate, account of a small portion of the rich human heritage that we all share. Reading these books one cannot help but to stop and think about just what it was that allowed the human species to succeed and expand around the planet; whilst all of the other species in the genus Homo are now long extinct. Reading these books makes one ask the questions -- What is it that makes us uniquely human? When, why, and how were animals first domesticated? What role did modern humans play in the extinction of the Neandertals?

With recent advances in anthropology and genetics we are slowly beginning to answer some of these questions. For example, it is fairly certain that anatomically modern humans and Neandertals probably interacted. In fact, it was recently announced, upon the completion of the sequencing of the Neandertal genome, that humans from Europe and some parts of Asia have DNA of which 4-5% is unique to the DNA of the Neandertal genome. In other words, Neandertals still lives inside some of us today! So, it is quite likely that we did more than just sit around the fire and toast marshmallows. Geneticists are also looking at the mitochondrial DNA of dogs in an effort to determine approximately how long ago we began to domesticate them. Ms. Auel's books track right along with much of this research. Throughout the series, she has many Human-Neandertal encounters and interactions; she gives us some pretty reasonable hypotheses for how horses and dogs may have been domesticated and put to work; and she also does a wonderful job of developing scenarios associated with advances in tool-making and use, finding medicines and treating the sick or injured.

Read these books! First, they are fun. Second, I guarantee you'll learn a lot about yourself, your species, your planet, and the species that have lived before us. Finally, I think there are some important lessons for the future in here too. It is not entirely clear what the long-term ramifications of climate-change and global warming will be yet; but I am convinced that it may become a more difficult planet for humans to occupy and survive upon.

In closing, if this series is something you are interested in and you read, you might also be interested in two quite fascinating, and well-written non-fiction books.

Desolate Landscapes: Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe, by John Hoffecker, February 2002, The Rutgers Series in Human Evolution.

The Early Upper Paleolithic Beyond Western Europe, Edited by Kris Kerry, June 2004, University of California Press.

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