The end of Ayla & The Land of Painted Caves

By Razib Khan | March 30, 2011 2:03 am

I read  Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear in elementary school at a friend’s house during a sleep over. It was next to the bedside, and I decided to pick it up. I’d thought it was a human evolution book from the cover. I read  2/3 of the book by dawn, took a few hours to catch up on sleep, and then finished the rest before the afternoon. I read almost no fiction outside of what was assigned in school as a child, but this was the exception (I also read a lot of Greek mythology, though I’m not sure that counts). The three sequels I finished in middle school when I noticed there were sequels! By the time book 5, Shelter of the Stones, came out in the early aughts I’d lost interest. I’ve moved on, but many have not. The last book, The Land of Painted Caves, is now out. The Los Angeles Times has written a retrospective of the series.

Since Amazon has a 1 to 5 star rating system, I thought I’d plot the results for the first five books. On the y-axis you have the number who gave a particular star value to a given book (the order of the books goes from left to right, book 1 to book 5). I haven’t read Shelter of the Stones, but I agree with the median reviewers on Amazon that The Mammoth Hunters was the most uninteresting of the first four books.

I recall Harlan Ellison once stated that he avoided writing works which entailed sequels because if he couldn’t say it in one book he didn’t want to say it at all. This probably cost Ellison some money, but I think it will help his long term reputation. Sometimes I wonder if writers such as Auel have become trapped, drafted into finishing projects which long ago exhausted their creativity because of the pressure to finish the story. Brandon Sanderson’s successful resurrection of The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s death suggests one of either two things to solve this problem and rescue writers. One option is that authors with massive visions may wish to “outsource” the grunt work of writing after their first few epics to others who haven’t been burnt out by the demands of world-building and plot maintenance. Basically a tighter form of the “shared world” method (in this case, the initial author’s plot arc could serve as the superstructure for subsequent writers, who would flesh out the details and add texture). The second possibility is that all ambitious authors should have a young Mormon alternate in their back pocket!


Comments (18)

  1. Georg

    I read intermittendly in the first two books in the 90ties.
    (My wife bought them, kind of subscription books)
    I often “threw” the books away, because of the idiotic feminism nonsense,
    and never read one totally.
    This would be aceptable in case of pure phantasy, but because the
    plot is located borderline of Neanterthals and Cro magnon in European
    ice age reality, its really bad.

  2. John Emerson

    Dumas (Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers) made extensive use of assistants. He basically ran a novel factory.

  3. Cathy

    I picked up Clan of the Cave Bear as an adolescent and at the time my mother wasn’t sure I should be reading it (but she also said the same of Brave New World and Handmaid’s Tale and many other dicey classics, and decided she’d rather have me reading those than fluffy women’s magazines.)

    I’m going to be sad to see Ayla’s tale finished. I think the 2nd book, Valley of Horses, was the best of the bunch in terms of writing, but I’ve always respected Auel’s dedication to research in her books. She brought the paleolithic world alive in a way that no archeology book ever could, and yet since everything was based on known artifacts, there was a sense of authenticity in the fiction as well.

  4. Tedow

    I suspect the series’ transition to soft-core porn after the first book may have contributed to a large percentage of the continued readership.

  5. John Emerson

    I read one inside page of CCB. A cave housewife goes into another cave housewife’s cave and does a quick once-over critiquing the other houswife’s interior decoration skills. I did not continue.

  6. Leviticus

    I consider Auel an exceptional story-teller, whose craft was marred by wishful thinking. I was drawn into the series by the ethnographic details and Auel’s take on Neanderthal “culture.” Auel reminds me of another author who wrote in a similar vein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose work I also admire, despite being amused by a similar ideological flaws.

    Now for some snark. Wouldn’t it be nice if our world, like Auel’s prehistoric world, was dominated by sensitive, Robert Redford-esque sorts like Jondalar who knew who to please a woman? I second John on the soft-core porn as potential source of popularity. Many of the readers who enjoyed it, however, would never consider it porn, no, they’d call it “erotica.”

    In such a dream world, society would be ruled by matriarchs, of course, and the occasional cross-dresser, whose ambiguous gender identity gives shehe a greater insight into the human condition.

    It’s classic, 20th-century wishful thinking regarding a Prehistoric, Feminist Eden. But not everyone is in on this sensitive egalitarianism. Auel contrasts the matriarchal homo sapiens with the brutish, patriarchal Neanderthals.

    These themes reached a climax with the whole revenge based Amazon society in Plains of Passage. Ayla’s confrontation with Attaroa, an empowered chief person, really is a dramatic climax for the series, and is why Shelters of Stone Women seems so anticlimatic; the action is already over. For non-readers, Attaroa and her gals had been abused by Neanderthals (code for Archie Bunker trogolodytes) and they lashed out at all men, understandably. But here is where Auel pulled back and didn’t pull a complete Andrea Dworkin. Some guys are ok, particularly pretty men like Jondalar who know their place.

    The book was primarily concerned with gender issues, but we learned about other forms of intolerance. The Neanderthals, particularly brutish leaders, were Auel’s whipping boys for their regressive attitudes, but Auel spent some time condemning homo sapiens’ anti-Neanderthal bigotry.

  7. Interesting. Do you have an opinion on Robert Sawyer’s “Hominids”?

  8. Angus

    Either I’m remembering some different books, or there was some straight up porn in there. No mention of the porn parts?

  9. Georg

    @ 5. John Emerson
    Those cave houswifes names were Betty resp. Wilma?

  10. Elena

    Auel’s research started in the 1980’s, pre-DNA sequencing, so she went with the current research available to her. At that time, Neandertals were supposed to be mute, hence the sign language. Granted it has taken her so long to finish them, but I might finish the series.

    As far as Robert Jordan, he was very ill for quite a while before his death (He had a very serious blood disease.

  11. John Emerson
  12. “One option is that authors with massive visions may wish to “outsource” the grunt work of writing after their first few epics to others who haven’t been burnt out by the demands of world-building and plot maintenance.”

    Indeed. Some of the examples of this basic model, which has as much to do with developing a formula and archaetypical characters, as much as is does with “world-building,” in many genres, would be V.C. Andrews books (she wrote only a few and is remarkably prolific these days for a dead woman), the Nancy Drew series, the Star War novels (even the original Star Wars script was basically ghost written by Foster), James Bond, and the Bourne novels. This is also the basic model for script writing in most TV series (e.g. Heroes, Pushing Daisies).

  13. “Do you have an opinion on Robert Sawyer’s “Hominids”?”

    Interesting as utopian fiction and it offers a fairly coherent and interesting culture.

    But, the notion that the Neanderthal culture could have taken a path that would have produced the technological sophistication described seems grossly implausible, and also not really essential to the cultural structure ideas proposed in the story. The “Barast” don’t seem like the sort that would devote the resources that they do to making complex machines and perfecting the materials synthesis process necessary to make those machines. The peaceful and unified society would also deprive their culture of the kind of competition between neighbors in war and otherwise that drove a lot of technological innovation in our world.

    The story would have been more effective if, in addition to the utopian cultural ideas about structuring society it could have also explored the notion that it would be possible to have a desirable stable state society without much material technology.

  14. Juan

    I saw Robert Jordan at a book signing years before he died and I remember thinking — Wow, he looks like he’s gonna die soon. His last couple of years must have entailed a great deal of suffering.

  15. Zora

    As one of the token females here, I must say I don’t like the phrase “idiotic feminism nonsense”. Feminism isn’t nonsense. Auel’s version of it, however, is a caricature.

    What bugged me about the series was Ayla as Paleolithic genius. Invents A, B, C, D … I think I stopped reading with the book where she figures out sewing. (I think it was sewing … this was many years ago.) !@#$!@#, I thought, next Ayla is going to invent writing, mathematics, and the digital computer.

  16. Clifford57

    Don’t know what the other folks were looking for or expecting but I have really
    enjoyed all of this series. Excellent story line and characters. Can’t wait to
    get my hands on a copy of “Painted Caves” for my own library!
    Each book in the Earth Children series has been worth waiting for.
    Two large fire stones held way up!!

  17. Jacq13636

    I am very disappointed by the negative and often snobby attitudes of many of you. You can knock the sexual aspects of the book, but any lengthy tome involving a lengthy relationship needs to show that aspect, cause it’s real. The lady who is bothered by “Ayla as Paleolithic genius” is naive, I think. Firstly, she is not the ONLY person inventing things in age when there was so much to discover at every turn. Also, she spent years alone! Try spending an extended period of time alone with no entertainment or outside influence. Test the amazing things your mind can come up with. Mrs Auel’s writing is fantastic. She wrote lengthy, exceedingly well researched books long before they were popular. Long before there was common internet. She didn’t just google this stuff. The Earth’s Children series brought alive my imagination, my belief in myself to be able to be inventive and bravely adventurous. It gave me a glimpse into a world that only dry and boring science texts had ventured into before. It is unfortunate that so many cannot see the depth and beauty of these books. I for one have been, since my youth, and will continue, into my dotterage, to be a grateful fan of this magical series.

  18. Norb

    I have enjoyed the entire series and looked forward to each new book as it came out. My wife and I went to Winnetka, IL tonight to see and meet Jean. She gave a very nice speech, had a question and answer session and signed books. She is a very neat lady with a great sense of humor. Tomorrow I will start reading the new book


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar