Cave Girl: Jean M. Auel’s ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’

(Last Updated On June 15, 2022)

With my first post I’m going to discuss the book The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, as well as the movie directed by Michael Chapman. As is usually the case, the book was far more engaging and meaningful than the movie, so I will take the plot points from the book and use various screenshots from the movie. The latter uses three actresses to represent the various stages of Ayla’s life; Emma Floria is 5-year-old Ayla, Nicole Eggert plays Ayla at about 11 or 12, and Daryl Hannah is adolescent/adult Ayla. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t accurately depict Ayla’s timeline. She is under eighteen for the whole of the book, and is 14 at its conclusion. Within that span of time she experiences incredible hardship, but what she learns in those 9 years will change everything forever. 

Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (1)

Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl (early Homo sapiens sapiens), distant ancestors to our forbears and us. Mog-ur—known to her affectionately by his true name, Creb—is a Neanderthal Man (H. neanderthalensis) and the most powerful magician known to his Clan. They share the same ancestor but are fated to much different paths. Creb and all his people are about to die in one of the most questionable extinctions known to modern science, while Ayla’s kind are on their way to becoming the most populous and (relatively) successful  mammals to have ever existed. Nobody seems to know just what happened there, and Jean M. Auel, while aiming to write fiction based on facts, did not specify how her Neanderthal clan were to become extinct either.

Ayla is taken in by the medicine woman of the Neanderthal clan after an earthquake kills Ayla’s family and forces the Clan out of their cave, their only home. The girl is just five years old, but nevertheless survives the attack of a cave lion (the grass lion’s huge, hungry ancestor) and passes out presumably from shock and pain. She is found by the Clan’s medicine woman, Iza on their search for a new cave home.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (2)

Iza is sibling to the Clan leader, Brun, so he is given to allow Iza to keep and care for the girl. The young girl eventually trains with Iza to become a medicine woman and is quite proficient with flowers and herbs. She also gets in the habit of using the excuse that she is looking for plants for Iza so that she can wander around by herself in the wilderness, thinking and playing in solitude.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (3)


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (4)


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (5)

Ayla’s presence disturbs the others, and their treatment towards her differences profoundly impacts her development. She is especially terrible with following their strict social customs, which include the docility and submission of women as virtues—instead of the low, shuffling walk of Clan women, Ayla is gifted with long, thin legs and is taller than most of the men by age 12. The discomfort she causes is very much about the way that she looks in comparison to the rest of the clan as well. Throughout the book she is repeatedly referred to as ugly by the other members, even by her sweet Mog-ur, and it is assumed she will never acquire a partner. They have no qualms about speaking these things in front of her either.

“He visualized the tall, skinny child, straight arms and legs, flat face with a large, bulging forehead, pale and washed out; even her eyes were too light. She will be an ugly woman, Mog-ur thought honestly. What man is likely to want her anyway?”  Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear


“… The skull of Cro-Magnon 1 does show traits that are unique to modern humans, including the tall, rounded skull with a near vertical forehead. A large brow ridge no longer tops the eye sockets and there is no prominent prognathism of the face and jaw [as compared to H. neanderthalensis].”  Smithsonian Natural Museum of History

Part of the reason why she is regarded with this repulsion is because her childhood seems to last much longer than what is regular for the Clan. Their lifespans average 30 years and the children are usually ready for their mating ceremonies at age 7 or 8. They start to wonder when she doesn’t seem to be developing the regular features of a woman, but it is precisely her childish figure which enables her to gain the skills that will eventually allow her to become independent. In this way and many others, Ayla becomes a symbol of fate for Creb, but to the others she is profoundly mysterious, profoundly wrong.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (6)

Built mainly for storing large quantities of data as memories, the Neanderthal Clan have minds that can peer thousands of years into the past with a process as simple as contemplating the natural life that surrounds them. (This is, of course, speculation by the author. You can do the research for yourself but there is some level of validity to her fictional fantasies.) The Clan can see eons behind them, all the way back to the dawn of life, with the help of a divine flower employed by Mog-ur; Datura stramonium or Angel’s Trumpet—Devil’s trumpet, if you’d like to play your hand on the other side of the paradox. But they can’t think in numerical terms past 3, and Mog-ur, whose mind is significantly more attuned to the abstract, the extra-sensory, can’t pass 20.  Ayla, however, is on her way to multiplying single-digit numbers at the age of five. She so astounds Creb with her mind that he becomes enthralled with her instantly, falling in love with her confidence and intelligence the first year of her stay.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (7)

Despite the rigidity of the Clan’s ways, especially in their expectation of docile behavior from the women, Creb gives Ayla some slack, often only scolding her for behavior that other men would have punished with physical violence. Physical affection is kept at a minimum between the two, but Ayla trusts in the old man’s love.

Her first year with the clan is arduous, as she is forced by her adoptive family and the pressures of the group to conform to their patriarchal expectations. However unexpectedly, she does seem to grow with a strength and confidence that is rare even for males in the Clan, and this brings about the unlucky attention of the leader’s son, Broud, who is to become her unfailing tormentor.

The boy is arrogant and narcissistic, unable to let go of Ayla’s unwomanly confidence and skill set. As Broud becomes a man and more assured in his dominance, his torments too become progressively more vicious and physically violent. But she has a secret. Ayla has learned to hunt, eventually becoming more proficient with a sling than the Clan’s own sling master. Broud’s attacks no longer bother her—in fact, she eggs him on, carrying her secret skill as a totem of confidence. Soon after her first menses at age 10, however, her secret is discovered when she kills a hyena to save a Clan child from death. She is given a comparatively mild punishment, considering it is strictly forbidden for a woman to even touch a weapon—a transgression which is punishable by death—and afterwards is startlingly anointed with the title of Woman Who Hunts by Mog-ur and the leader. From then on she is given the freedom to hunt in the open, using only her sling, but that’s good enough for her. Ayla’s confidence soars, and eventually the Clan begins to accept her, even respect her. Everyone except for Broud, that is.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (8)

Because of his unceasing abuse, Ayla has learned to dissociate from Broud, obeying him but no longer with any hint of emotional investment. But her pain is what makes Broud happy and he is frustrated with her lack of distress. Again shortly after her first menses, Broud comes across Ayla gathering herbs for Iza away from the cave and rapes her. Because of Clan customs, any male is allowed to have intercourse with any female he wishes, even if she belongs to another man, even if she isn’t yet a woman—but most Clan men feel it beneath their dignity to have intercourse with a child.  All a man has to do is give a signal, and the female will “assume the position”. Because of this, the Clan doesn’t protest when Broud takes up the habit of raping her daily, sometimes multiple times a day. The women are confused as to why she is screaming out as if in pain, but the ordeal is seen as some kind of odd phase for Broud, considering Ayla is so unattractive and Broud has a beautiful woman of his own. Iza and Creb notice her crippling depression, but they don’t know what to attribute it to and so have no way of helping her.

A redeeming feature of the Clan is that they don’t stigmatize sexuality in childhood.

“In the Clan, the mating of two people was entirely a spiritual affair, begun with a declaration to the whole clan but consummated by a secret rite that included only the men. In this primitive society, sex was as natural and unrestrained as sleeping or eating. Children learned, as they learned other skills and customs, by observing adults, and they played at intercourse as they mimicked other activities from a young age. Often a boy who reached puberty, but had not yet made his first kill and existed in limbo between child and adult, penetrated a girl child even before she reached her menarche.”  Jean M. Auel, The Clan of the Cave Bear

However, they don’t necessarily know how sex works either. They believe in animal spirits called Totems; assigned to every member of the clan, they protect each person and bring luck or misfortune depending on how the clan behaves. They believe these spirits are rooted themselves in tradition as well, fearing anger from their otherworldly protectors if they stray from long-practiced rites and customs. Male totems are usually “stronger” than female totems (for example, a female totem might be a beaver where a male totem may be a wild boar), and it is believed that pregnancy is caused by the male totem “defeating” the female totem by some undefined spiritual means. A woman’s menses is similarly caused by the woman’s totem defeating a man’s totem. Ayla herself has the strongest totem in the tribe, the massive Cave Lion, assigned by Mog-ur when he contemplates the parallel scars on her legs caused by the cave lion attack when she was just five years old. Throughout her years, Ayla receives assistance and protection from the Cave Lion, noticed only by Mog-ur (as such a strong totem for a little girl confuses the rest of the Clan).


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (9)

Shockingly enough (or maybe not), Ayla soon discovers she is pregnant—and is ecstatic. She had been told all throughout her childhood that she would never bear children, would never mate or find a partner due to her incredibly powerful totem and her ugliness. She forms no connection at first between Broud’s sexual abuse and the pregnancy, but it isn’t long before she pieces it together—becoming the first of the tribe to ever do so. She loves her baby all the same, and I believe the child represents for her a reclamation of her femininity, stripped from her at a young age simply because she didn’t fit the Clan’s idea of what it meant to be female. Her first child, born to her at age 11, is therefore a symbol of her unfailing femininity in spite of her masculine strength. The child is born as a hybrid between the two human species and is seen by the Clan as being deformed, but to Ayla she sees only unity—the mergence of her spirit with that of the Clan in a way she could never accomplish herself. In the end, Broud gives her the one thing she thought she would never get.

An interesting aspect of the plot involves the Clan Gathering, which I will not go into too much detail about. A ritual is held at the gathering in which Ayla must act as medicine woman and distribute the Datura decoction to the females of hers and other Clans. She takes some as well, perhaps too much, but when the women begin their erotic dance, Ayla is pulled by some force to Creb’s ceremony involving the Mog-urs and acolytes of other clans. This is a ceremony not only restricted from female participation, but male participation as well. It is only for the shamans. She learns some interesting things from Creb here and I will not say anything else about it because it’s honestly an astounding scene that should be read in its original form to be appreciated.

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Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (10)

I find the contrasts between her masculine and feminine aspects quite interesting. Rather, I find it interesting in that she’s not really masculine or feminine. The definitions attached to this duality are entirely subjective, seemingly dependent on the social context in which they are used. It is true that most societies throughout human history seem to have considered hunting an entirely masculine activity, but there are definitely exceptions as with all things. From the Clan’s perspective, she is almost wholly masculine; but then, she bears life, she experiences the cycles of her menses, and she develops a close relationship with plants—all are traits considered feminine by the Clan and many real-life human societies. If you read up on mythology you’ll have heard of Artemis, goddess of hunting, virginity, and protector of nature.

Considering Ayla is a child for most of the book (in the sense that she is under 18), it’s interesting to think of what femininity means in the context of little girls and in the context of Ayla’s role in the Clan. Children are unaware of themselves in a very genuine way, resulting in a sort of freedom that most adults can’t seem to experience. Little girls are themselves a kind of nymph or faerie—feminine, yes, but also masculine in the most surprising and mischievous of ways. They are dynamic, dual. I can say from experience that emerging as a woman from a state of girlhood is entirely frightening. All of a sudden it’s not cute to climb trees in a dress, or acceptable to sit with your legs very obviously open, or to do all sorts of things I was able to do without inhibition as a young girl, without even a thought as to how it was perceived by others. Eventually it became time to grow up, time to accept only one half of the duality while ignoring the other as if it didn’t exist. Ayla is so fascinating because she never seems to experience this horrible shift. Her unheard-of status as Woman Who Hunts combined with her other differences mean that the Clan is constantly in a state of awe or confusion about her, allowing Ayla to dissociate from Clan customs and to walk into herself as she wholly is. She grows up without the notion that she is a child turning into an adult. I’m not sure about the other books, but by the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is a woman and child all in one, and she is also neither—she’s Ayla.


Michael Chapman, John Sayles and Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) (11)

By the way, I still climb trees in dresses, ha!


Margaret O’Brien

9 thoughts on “Cave Girl: Jean M. Auel’s ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’

  1. Lily, hello! My apologies for not replying sooner, but I have been away. I was wondering when you would get around to writing an article for us. And what a great choice for your first post! I have never read the books, but I have long been intrigued by them. I recall seeing the film as a teenager when it aired on television and quite enjoyed it. Anyway, an excellent article. I hope to see many more from you in the future. 😀

  2. I read the book “Clan of the Cave Bear”, and found it so engrossing that I had to read the other books in the “Earth’s Children” series. Jean Auel made these characters and events seem so real that it was actually like being there and learning how they lived. The only thing about this series that made me think about it was the ages of Ayla and the other girls in this series, especially during such as the “opening ceremony”. I could not help but think,”Could this be considered as child pornography by today’s societal standards?”
    While these standards might have been acceptable in their society, they would not go over so well in our modern world.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences but your mentioning child pornography is a bit out of left field. Pornography is material intended for superficial sexual gratification. Certainly, none of Auel’s works qualify as that. The fact that the novel explores the topic of young sexuality has nothing to do with pornography and the fact that we at Pigtails try to cogently and respectfully explore these issues as well does not mean we are talking about pornography either.

      This post is triggering a kind of gender gap I have been noticing. Men have a tendency to regard sex as superficial and often interpret the curiosity of women as desire. This, I think, is the key difference between between erotica and pornography. Pornography is superficial and goal-oriented whereas erotica is an exploration and inspires deep reflection by those who find it illuminating. Erotica can be genuinely artistic while pornography is formulaic and commercial.

      I urge readers to choose their words more carefully and not casually misuse those which tend to promote ignorance and sensationalism. We appreciate hearing the views of the wide range of readers who visit us, but we wish to plumb greater mental and spiritual depths and not cater to our basest animal impulses. Thank you, -Ron

  3. I have neither read the book nor watched the film, but from what I read in your post I see a few absurdities:

    1. The Neanderthal people find Ayla ugly, in particular because she is “pale and washed out; even her eyes were too light”; in the film she has blond hair. In reality, at the time of the meeting between the two human species, the Neanderthal men had adapted to the European climate for several tens of thousands years, so they were probably light-skinned with light-brown, blond or red hair, while the Cro-Magnon had recently arrived from Africa, so they were probably dark-skinned and dark-haired.
    2. It is claimed that the lifespan of Neanderthal was 30 years and that their growth was much faster than that of Cro-Magnon. There is no basis for this: genetically the two species are very close (and could interbreed), and even chimps can sometimes live 60 years in captivity, so why would one human species be more short-lived than apes?
    3. “The Neanderthal Clan have minds that can peer thousands of years into the past with a process as simple as contemplating the natural life that surrounds them.” This is just New-Age nonsense.
    4. The Neanderthal “can’t think in numerical terms past 3”, but “Ayla, however, is on her way to multiplying single-digit numbers at the age of five.” If they can’t count past the number 3, then they don’t have names for numbers greater than 3; on the other hand, if Ayla makes multiplications, she must be able to name the resulting numbers, so she needs to name 2 x 2 = 4, and since she has lived with the Neanderthal since early childhood, where did she learn these number names? Doing arithmetic is not a capacity that children develop in the wild, it is the result of a long cultural evolution, probably linked to managing property and trading, and anthropologists met primitive Homo Sapiens cultures that did not have numbers above 3, they counted “1, 2, 3, many”.

    It looks like in her prehistoric story, Jean Auel applied to the past modern racial stereotypes about “analytical” European colonizers and “intuitive” Natives.

    • Our modern scientific understanding of early human history is largely speculative. After all, it is based upon tools and, in many cases, mere fragments of bone. We are not able to accurately theorize the color of early H. sapiens sapiens’ skin or even if they possessed body hair. We can only guess. Also keep in mind that Jean Auel was no expert in her field. Although she did extensive research for the series, her novels are mostly creative endeavors and should be treated as such. She did not write an exhaustive overview of the upper paleolithic.

    • Yeah, if you enjoy palaeoanthropology and fantasy, you almost owe it to yourself to read this series. Sure, they’re fantasy books, so the magic is magic, and the heroine an übermensch; but the research she’s done for the rest of the book is good, and only gets better at the series progresses. There are some annoyances in all the books, but I feel they’re forgivable: the first book was written in the 70s, published in 1980, and researching these things was not trivial for an author back then. Since the huge popularity of her first book, she’s had the resources to travel the world and research the next books in more depth, along with crazy numbers of specialists willing to help.

  4. I’ve always loved the books. Reading CotCB for the first time when I was about ten was a wonderful experience. I was unaware there’d been a movie made of them: thank you for that! 🙂
    IMDB tells me there’ll even be a TV series soon, that’s already begun filming in May, though it sounds like they may’ve decided to skip the “Ayla is a child” angle, given it’ll be starring Millie Bradley (21).

    • I’m glad you could enjoy the books while you were young, I can imagine they would provide a lot of benefit to a child; especially with the first book being about a child’s struggle. Although there are a lot of children’s series out now with very strong female characters, Ayla’s story is just so unique that, in my opinion, it’s incomparable.
      Yes, I have heard about the television series as well. I’m wondering if they will include a child actress in a minor role for the first few episodes to establish a timeline more consistent with the book. In any case, I honestly believe the book will always be better than any adaptation, but I can understand the appeal of seeing beloved characters brought to life on a screen.

      • A TV series has a good chance of doing a better job with a large book than any movie could, I think: Game of Thrones, for example, would never have worked as a movie series, and Lord of the Rings felt almost absurdly abbreviated. Clan of the Cave Bear alone is 450 pages, approx. 8-10 hours of reading, so no movie could ever give the same depth, but a series might. But yes, there are things you can do in text that you just can’t do on film. Not just underage sex; more, the contents of peoples’ minds can’t be shown on screen, though it can be hinted at by good actors, music, and cinematography.

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