The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

This book, first of a series, is about a prehistoric human child who gets adopted into a tribe of Neanderthals. There are lots of detailed descriptions of Ice Age hunter-gatherer lifestyles, tools, and superstitions. Sometimes the narrative got kind of bogged down in these descriptions, to the point where I thought about how well this text would work as a supplement to history or anthropology textbooks.

The gender politics and sexual practices of the clan create the main conflict, a rivalry between Ayla, the main character, the adopted human, and egotistical Broud, next-in-line to be tribe leader. This prehistoric tribe’s customs are incredibly misogynistic, and I believe readers are meant to be kind of disgusted by them. Women of the clan are always supposed to be obedient to men, waiting on them, being submissive and subservient. Ayla struggles to live within the narrow bounds given to clan women, inciting Broud to discipline her. She eventually breaks or stretches some of these customs, and these instances of rebellion are treated as small triumphs.

The people of the clan are all sexually promiscuous, and have no taboos about nudity or watching others have sex or children playing at having sex. When they have sex, a man signals to a woman that he wants intercourse, and the woman assumes the position. She has no choice in the matter and must submit. It is discussed that women usually like sex, though, and sometimes try to provoke a man to initiate. Sex is almost always discussed in terms of men “relieving their needs,” a concept related to rape culture. I can believe that the prehistoric tribe may have thought of sex that way, but I would have liked to have seen the narrator or Ayla questioning that idea or holding it up to scrutiny.

This sexual practice creates the conditions for the hardest part of the book to read. Broud spends most of the novel vainly trying to assert his dominance over Ayla, and once she becomes sexually mature, he decides to use sex to dominate her as well. Her reaction makes it clear that using sex this way is not common among men of the tribe. She can’t understand why he’d want to have sex with her when he doesn’t find her attractive. She resists, he beats her until she submits, and then he really enjoys raping her. Since women are supposed to submit sexually, she says he beat her for being disobedient, and submits when he gives her the signal again and again later on. He likes it because he knows she hates it. He only stops when she becomes pregnant and her excitement about having a baby makes her hatred of Broud feel insignificant to her, and thus the act is less enjoyable for him.

The clan has no concept of fatherhood or understanding of the connection between sex and reproduction, explaining pregnancy through spiritual legends about the woman’s “totem” being defeated. (One problem with this belief is incest. The clan does have an incest taboo, but only concerning children of the same mother. People could be sleeping with their half-siblings all the time since no one knows who their fathers are.) Their superstition allows the promiscuity to coexist with a custom of mating and pair bonding that is similar to patriarchal marriage, in which a man provides food and resources to a woman and her children. This is unlike traditional marriage because no one feels any jealousy when either men or women have sex outside the mate relationship.

I’m not sure whether I believe these two customs–promiscuity and pair bonding–can coexist this way or not; it seems more likely to have one or the other. When men invest in children, they want to know the child is theirs, and so marriage restricts the sexual activity of women. When there is promiscuity and no concept of fatherhood, children are raised communally, with no particular investment from any men unrelated to the mother. For men to give so much time and resources for children that they believe they had no part in concieving is an almost unbelievable act of supreme altruism and community spirit. I sometimes wondered if these two different types of sexual customs were pasted together by the author to accomodate her plot. She needed casual sex to create the rape plotline, and she needed patriarchal marriage with paternal investment to explain why Broud was heir-apparent. Erasing the concept of fatherhood provides just enough cover for the two opposed sexual arrangements to hang together, if you squint a little and don’t look too closely.

Another disturbing thing about the clan is that their short lifespans and early maturation meant that 8-year-olds were being treated as full-fledged adults, having sex and making babies. Gross.

This was an interesting read, if a bit pedantic. It was an interesting discussion of ancient superstitions and customs, and portrayed a kind of a nightmare vision of sexual relations. It was fun to see Ayla breaking the original glass ceiling, even if she did have to save about 15 babies to do it. I’ll continue reading the series to see what comes next for her.


7 thoughts on “The Clan of the Cave Bear

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