Ayla – The Fundamentalist Cro-Magnon Woman

May 9th, 2011

I just recently finished reading The Plains of Passage, the fourth book in Jean M. Auel’s Earth Children series.  I read the first three – The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters while I was in high-school and was completely entranced with the story of Ayla, Jondular and the hypothetical history of early humans.

If you are unfamiliar with the stories, here is a synopsis from Wikipedia

Failing that link – here is my own rough outline of the life of our heroine, Ayla

Age 3 – her entire Cro-Magnon family is destroyed in an earth quake.  Ayla alone survives.  She wanders lost for days, barely escaping  the clutches of a cave lion.  The scars of that attack are forever present upon Ayla’s leg.  A group of Neanderthals discovers Ayla and the present medicine woman adopts Ayla as her own.  Ayla grows up with ‘The Clan’ a group of cave dwelling Neanderthals.

Late adolescence – Ayla’s adoptive mother dies and her adoptive father who is The Clan shaman loses power.  A sociopathic new leader arises – one who has a history of abusing Ayla both sexually and physically.  Ayla bears this new leader’s child.  When the child is three years old, Ayla is forced to leave The Clan and her child, Durc behind.

Early adulthood – Ayla spends a year living on her own.  She wanders around until she finds a beautiful valley far from The Clan.  During this time Ayla is extremely innovative.  She develops new tools and ways of making fire.  She domesticates a horse and believe it or not a lion.  The same lion drags the half alive body of Jondular to her (sort of) and Ayla saves Jondular’s life.

Early adulthood continued – Ayla and Jondular make their way to a group of Cro Magnon people called the Mamutoi.  Ayla learns a brand new culture and is often reviled for her upbringing among the ‘flatheads’ or Neanderthals. Romantic crises arise.  There are break-ups and getting back togethers.  There is much sex.  There is even more sex.  And then there is also more sex.

Early adulthood part 3 – Ayla and Jondular leave the Mamutoi and journey through an amazing pre-historic landscape filled with woolly mammoth, mythical horse beasts, other fantastical critters, volcanoes, floods, floating islands, glaciers, and finally arrive at Jondular’s people the Zelandonii.


Over the past twenty years, I had never forgotten about Ayla and have often wanted to read the rest of the books.  In fact, I think that Auel’s books probably planted the first early seeds of doubt in my mind about the accuracy of the literal biblical interpretation of Christianity that I was raised with.  Although it is clear the stories are fiction, they are very well researched and reference many things I was always interested in such as herbs, plants, natural types of medicine, religion, anthropology, etc…  I also was extremely fascinated by the sex in the books.  There is a lot of it and as an ‘awakening teen’ I couldn’t get enough of Auel’s steamy descriptions of Ayla and Jondular and Ayla and Ranec and Ayla as a red-footed sex tutor to the newly matured young men of the Mamutoi.  And then there is the much touted detail of Jondular’s “length” and the equally exclaimed upon detail of “Ayla’s depth” which are amazingly enough a perfect match as if they were physically designed for each other!

But the biggest question that the books presented to me as a literal bible believing young adult was the concept of a time when people were clearly not worshiping a Jehovah type God figure.  These books are set in a time BEFORE the old Testament – a time when Noah, Moses and Abraham were not even a twinkle in God’s own eye.  The neanderthal clan, which are the people who find Ayla as a small child and raise her as one of their own, worship a bear god who they mimic in many of their habits, by wearing fur garments and living in caves.  The Cro-Magnon people or ‘The Others’ as they are referred to by members of The Clan, worship an earth mother type of goddess and express their devotion through frequent fertility rituals.  Auel can be credited for being far ahead of her time by hypothesizing inter-breeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as a story line in her books.  The resulting children are referred to as having ‘mixed spirits’ and often struggle to find acceptance in either the clan or the others.  Non-African human DNA has recently been revealed to contain between one and four percent neadrethal gene fragments.

What is most interesting to me as I read the fourth book in the series is not how strangely UN-Christian Ayla is – but how fundamentalist Christian she behaves!  In fact, I wonder if my fervent acceptance of the books during my devout early years of Christianity had more to do with Ayla’s submissive behavior to both men and her elders as well as her constant religio-centric behavior (crediting spirits and mysticism for everything that happens to her).  I may not have been able to truly digest the idea of a ‘time before Jehovah’, but I could certainly relate to a culture with strict gender rules as dictated by their religion.  In the fourth book The Plains of Passage which I just finished, Ayla is slavishly devoted to Jondular.  Over and over again, she leaves behind groups of people whom she loves to journey back to Jondular’s home.  Because of her Clan up-bringing she is completely unable to turn down Jondular’s sexual advances insisting that if he is interested, she is.  She always follows his lead – even though she is incredibly smart, creative, strong and innovative and has survived on her own for long periods of time and is perfectly able to do so again.

By the end of the book, I was tired of Ayla’s docility.  I wanted her to make some demands.  I wanted her to refuse to go along with Jondular at least once, but she never did.  Throughout the book, Ayla’s submissive behavior is often attributed to how the Neanderthal clan she was raised in treated the women in their groups.  Women had no power, they could not refuse sex, they could not hunt nor even touch a weapon.  They were second class citizens in every way unless they were medicine women.

So in some ways – Auel’s books absolutely refute the archetypal Jehovah God/monotheism of the Judeo/Christian myth.  But on the other hand – they maintain many of the worst aspects of Christianity in terms of denying rights to women and empowering a priesthood of men to control the entire group.  I’ll also go out on a limb here and say that although I deeply respect the immense work and creativity that Auel displays in her books, the huge scope of her research and how she brought to life what it might have been like for early man – her writing at times did not exactly hold me spell-bound.  I had to work to get through parts of the fourth book and I skimmed huge portions.  I was not the same enthralled adolescent that I was in high-school.  These days I prefer a more lyrical bent and a lighter touch in my fiction.  I also like the occasional gimlet eyed observation, and Auel’s characters are extraordinarily earnest – which wears me out after a while. But I am going to read the rest of the series. For Ayla’s sake – in the hopes she is able to finally abandon the ingrained submission she learned from her clan, find her own self and start issuing the orders for a change.  I think she’s earned a bit of a power trip after all she’s been through.


  • Jennine:

    This is EXACTLY why I touch weapons every chance I get.

    I read the series and was struck by Ayla’s strength. I whine like a baby if I run out of Diet Coke.

  • Kait:

    Let me know if she does okay? I stopped reading those years ago. I never articulated it as well as you do here but something really bothered me about them. I ate up the first and second but by the third I was just sick of it all.

    • A-yep. Loved the first book, thought the second book was okay, but the third had me rolling my eyes.

  • Your take is interesting. I saw it more that Ayla is a survivor of child abuse and rape at a young age, and she never really is able to move past that psychologically. She also has a lot of abandonment issues and doesn’t really learn/acknowledge that she can love herself, and I think that is part of the problem.

    The thing that always used to crack me up from reading the books is that Ayla somehow “invents” everything. I was pretty sure by book 4, she’d be coming up with microscopes and computers.

    Don’t know if you’ve ever read Aztec by Gary Jennings, but I was kind of reminded of that book as well, because the main character is always inventing stuff ahead of its time.

    • Rechelle:

      Yes, by the end of book four – Ayla seems like Superwoman. I figured Jondular and Ayla would eventually blow up a pig bladder and float on the wind across the glacier. It did get a mite ridiculous.

      • Laura:

        There are actually a few interesting articles regarding Ayla’s position as an early– and perhaps most epic? — Mary Sue of all time. Might be the reason why, as the series went on, many readers had trouble relating to her.

  • AmeliaJake:

    I first read Clan of the Cave Bear after and exhausting week of life as a graduate assistant during finals. Grading underclassmen essays – studying for mine. I sunk into a big bean bag and plunged into the pleasure of reading without anything hanging over my head.

    I really liked that first book. The periods of constant sex in the later books caused me to skim – a lot; it was like coming to a political diatribe in a Ludlum book and just taking those pages and flipping them over en masse to get on with the story.

    I thought she wrote far too well to have to constantly refer to “tingling hiney” moments.

  • Grace:

    My husband wanted to buy me her latest book but I said “no thanks”. Like many of the above, I liked the first book but the next two really didn’t do much for me. Funnily enough, I own a signed copy of “Plains of Passage”, which my husband bought in a second hand bookstore in Hermosa Beach, CA. while we were on vacation. Wonder what I could get for it on e-bay?

  • I too read the first books in Ayla’s series in high school and I loved them! I’ve been looking for a series to read that’ll keep my attention longer than ten minutes. Perhaps this is it?
    Thanks for reminding me what a great series these books are!

  • Okay, now I definitely have to pick this series up and give at least the first one a read. Has anyone read the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley? I had always heard people say that the Earth’s Children was like a Neanderthal version of it, but apparently that is incorrect.

  • Jenny:

    I, too read this series in high school and loved it! I have to recommend another series that was along the same lines, but much more enthralling: Piers Anthony’s Geodyssey series, consisting of Isle of Woman, Shame of Man, Hope of Earth, Muse of Art, and Climate of Change. They are excellent and definitely held me spell-bound when I read them a little later in life. They too have copious sexual content, but hey, its the history and development of our species were talking about here! It couldn’t have happened without the nookie.

  • Irma:

    Just like the Rocky movies, the first book in the series was by far the best, I even had men friends who adored it. But as my friend Doug said about the second one, “When did it become Sex In The Ice Age? What happened to LEARNING about stuff??”

    And save yourself some time, Rechelle, and put off Book Five until your thumbs are ready to do some serious page flipping, I swear that the first 120 pages take place over three hours of Ayla’s life. No kidding. And not even an EXCITING three hours.

    But back to your post. I had never thought about Ayla in terms of being submissive to Jondalar, I always saw her as independent and flauting tradition, but I certainly can see your angle, which is why I love discussion about books, you never know what another reader will see.

    What had always pissed me off about Ayla is how many things the author expects us to give her credit for at the age of 18: talented medicine woman, prolific hunter, good mother, first domesticator of animals, discoverer of cave paintings (see Book 5) and easily procured fire; inventor of the bra, corn row hair braids, sewing, sugical sewing, and hunting weapons; incredible beauty, great figure, and a WICKED good lay.

    Oh, what?? LIke I didn’t already feel inferior enough without some 30,000 years dead teenager pointing out that I suck as a woman?

    I understand that fiction is meant to take us to different places, to make us experience a different reality. And those books do that, no questions asked. But why did they also have to tout the typical “Cosmo” line that we as women will never be as amazing as “Woman X”? Couldn’t Ayla have had some acne or tripped in front of someone important or have belched at the wrong moment??

    • Irma:

      GAH, one thing I said, about the “30,000 years dead teenager”…that is not a spoiler in the book series, I don’t mean the character Ayla died in the books, I mean that such a woman would have been dead for 30,000 years.

      Or, you know….maybe I did mean she died. Just saying.


  • I read the first three book in high school/college. Loved the first two but had to make myself finish the fourth book. I had completely forgotten about the length/depth thing…LOL…I was in high school when I read that so while I “got” the logistics of what was going on…..let’s just say it took me a few more years to “understand” and appreciate that tidbit of info… :)

  • Shelly:

    Save yourself some time…skip the final 2 volumes. They repeat most of the first 3, with very little new content. VERY disappointing.

    I loved Mists of Avalon, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve read it.