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The Missing Link

by Darryl McGrath on April 13, 2011

The Land of Painted Caves
by Jean Auel

The Land of Painted Caves

By Jean Auel

Crown, 768 pages, $30

Before there was Harry Potter, long before there was Twilight, there was the story of an orphaned little girl who lived in a fantastic, frightening place that once really existed on earth—Ice Age Europe.

The girl’s name was Ayla, and she was the creation 30 years ago of a never-before-published author, Jean Auel. Ayla’s story—which broke publishing records, spans six novels and has taken a generation to tell—hinged upon a question which scientists still have not quite settled: Could two different kinds of humans, the now-extinct Neanderthals and the modern Cro-Magnons—the humans which we are today—have met, mingled and interbred in Europe 35,000 years ago, even as one kind was dying out and the other was preparing to take over the planet?

Auel’s wildly imaginative and beautifully written first novel, the 1980 Clan of the Cave Bear, posed that very question. The story opens with 5-year-old Ayla as the only survivor of a small tribe of prehistoric eastern Europeans wiped out in an earthquake. Some wandering Neanderthals, who have also been displaced by the earthquake and who call themselves the Clan, rescue and adopt her. But the tall, blond Ayla can no more physically blend in with the stocky, taboo-bound Clan members than she can repress her assertiveness, her ability to reason or her insatiable curiosity—traits which her adoptive people find threatening.

As Ayla approaches maturity, the Neanderthals, who recognize her as a symbol of their approaching evolutionary doom, cast her out into the prehistoric wilds and almost certain death. But Ayla also has the innate inventiveness of her kind, and instead of succumbing to cave lions, periglacial winters or loneliness, she . . . well, suffice to say that the introductory novel spawned five sequels in what would be formally titled the Earth’s Children series but which would always more popularly be known as the “Clan of the Cave Bear books.” Crown Books has just released the final installment, set in ancient France and entitled Land of the Painted Caves.

The woman who started this phenomenon and inspired a new genre—the paleolithic historical novel—is 75. She is reveling in the star treatment of what may be her last big promotional tour. No matter that huge book tours are themselves prehistoric history these days in the publishing world; no matter that heavily researched historical novels—think epics such as James Michener’s Hawaii or Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series—also seem a relic of that same pre-Kindle past. Auel has been around so long there’s only one person left on Crown’s editorial staff from when Crown took a chance on Clan of the Cave Bear after numerous other publishers had rejected it.

“I honestly haven’t quite gotten hold of it yet,” Auel said of her farewell-to-Ayla tour in a recent telephone interview during her stop in Chicago. “The time will come when I will probably sit down and cry. Ayla is like a good friend to me now. I know more about her than I know about some of my best friends.”

Bittersweet feelings aside, Auel is clearly having a blast as she juggles a half-dozen or more interviews, talks and tapings a day at each stop. A week after the release of Land of the Painted Caves, the novel was the number-one fiction title on both the Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times bestseller lists, and it’s a safe guess that some of the people discovering the series were not even yet born when their parents read Clan of the Cave Bear.

Over the years, the Clan books had more than their share of detractors. Some reviewers dismissed them as caveman bodice rippers (and judging from the sex scenes, Ayla and the Cro-Magnon mate she eventually finds must have seen a few cave-painting versions of Dan Savage’s column). The one movie made from the series, which starred Daryl Hannah, bombed at the box office. Critics have also noted that some lesser-known novels in the genre, such as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Reindeer Moon, presented a more literary, but also darker and more believable depiction of Cro-Magnon life. And experts love to point out that Auel (who did an astonishing amount of hands-on research for the books, including studying flint-knapping techniques) compressed thousands of years’ worth of human technological advances—better ways to start fires, throw spears and transport heavy loads—into the two-plus decades the novels actually cover. But in the end, Auel did what her many fans feared she would never do, given the years that those fans waited for each installment: She finished the series.

Auel also feels vindicated on one major theory of paleolithic antropology she embraced right from the beginning: the then-controversial idea that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons might have interbred when the two groups crossed paths in Ice Age Europe—which in turn means that many humans today might carry a trace of Neanderthal genetic material in their DNA.

That theory is more widely—but still not universally—accepted now than it was in 1980, says Todd Disotell, an internationally known professor at the Center for the Study of Human Origins at New York University.

“I would say it’s a 50-50 proposition that Jean Auel was correct—that there was hybridization,” Disotell said. “It’s not settled—it’s absolutely not settled—and in paleoanthropology, many people guessed right for the wrong reasons.”

It may be that a very few sexual encounters are responsible for that trace of genetic material that some believe is Neanderthal and others, including Disotell, are more inclined to believe may simply be very ancient but non-Neanderthal DNA. Even if a few isolated matings did occur between the two groups, Disotell notes, those rare encounters would have exponentially spread the resulting genetic material wider and wider into the human population through many generations and many thousands of years—and still would show up in some form much further down the road. Think of placing a single drop of purple dye into an ocean; you would see it for a split second before it dispersed and seemingly disappeared but it would still be there in the ocean long after you could perceive it. So is it possible that sometime, somewhere in ancient Europe, a few Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons mated? To cut to the chase: Yes.

Around such weighty speculation, Auel had to also tackle some more literary quandries in the final book, including whether or not Ayla would ever find out who her birth people were. And . . . the big one . . . would she ever learn the fate of her son, who was fathered by a Neanderthal man and who was a toddler when the Clan expelled her? Ayla’s wrenching decision to leave him—she hardly expected to survive on her own in such a brutal landscape—is a recurring theme in the series. The hope that the final book resolves this issue probably has readers flipping ahead through Land of the Painted Caves to satisfy their curiosity.

But once those readers reach the last page, that really will be the end for Ayla, her mate Jondalar and the sometimes ridiculed but undeniably successful Earth’s Children books.

“I’m not done writing, as long as I’m mentally and physically capable of writing,” Auel said. “I think I’m done with this series.”