A Biological Anthropology View (and yes, “Neandertal” is an accepted way to spell the more common “Neanderthal”):
In Jean M. Auel’s novel, Clan of the Cave Bear, she tells the story of a young girl named Ayla that gets separated from her tribe and is adopted by a tribe of Neandertals. At first, the Neandertals do not fully accept her, but as she grows up, they begin to accept her more and more. The head medicine woman, Iza, becomes her adopted mother, and Ayla is allowed to learn how to use medicine and cure the sick clan members. She also develops a strong relationship with Creb, the magician of the clan. Even though she is an anatomically modern human, she is accepted by almost all of the clan. However, some members like Broud hate her presence. He rapes her, impregnates her, and eventually kicks her out of the tribe. Although the novel is a piece of fiction, it uses accurate evidence from biological anthropology to support the story. However, to fill in the gaps and create an interesting story, Auel makes some farfetched and inaccurate assumptions concerning the Neandertals’ way of life.
Physically, the Neandertals in the novel are very accurately described. When describing Iza’s appearance, Auel writes, “She was just over four and a half feet tall, large boned, stocky, and bow-legged, but walked upright on strong muscular legs and flat bare feet. Her arms, long in proportion to her body, were bowed like her legs. She had a large beaky nose, a prognathous jaw jutting out like a muzzle, and no chin.” Later, she also goes on to describe the heavy brow ridges and large heads, which made it hard for females to bare children. Auel’s description is very similar to the description of Michael Alan Park when he writes, “The face was large and prognathous, with a broad nasal opening and widely set eyes.” Park also explains that Neandertals were short, strong, stocky, and had heavy brow ridges. In the novel, Auel also explains how the Neandertals often had teeth problems, which has also been supported by anthropological evidence. For example, Creb is plagued with a sore tooth that Iza is forced to pull out because it is too worn down and useless. Anthropological evidence suggests that Neandertals had special uses for their large front teeth because fossil evidence shows an incredible amount of wear on their teeth.
Even though the physical characteristics of Neandertals are adequately portrayed by Auel, she has some farfetched ideas about the brain structure of Neandertals. In the novel, she explains that the fictional Neandertal characters had a very strong memory, and they could even remember the knowledge of their ancestors. She goes further to state, “And when they reached back far enough, they could merge that memory that was identical for all and join their minds, telepathically.” For this reason, their very well adapted brains could not store any more information because their heads were already too large, and some women already had trouble giving birth. She states, “They couldn’t afford new knowledge that would enlarge their heads even more.” When Ayla exposes Iza to knew information, like sounds, Iza consciously realizes that she cannot learn the information because there is not any more room in her brain. These ideas of telepathy and memories of ancestors bring an interesting twist to the novel, but there is no evidence to suggest that Neandertals had these abilities. In fact, some anthropologists believe strength was more important to Neandertals than brain activity, and they may have depended more on biological than cultural solutions to varied problems of survival in their world.
However, even if the survival of the Neandertals was dependent on strength and endurance, researches still believe that Neandertals were intelligent and were able to communicate with each other. Researchers Stringer and Gamble believe “they must at least have had a simple language ability.” Park explains the simple language abilities when he writes, “Anthropologists have concluded that because of their higher larynx, Neandertals were not capable of making all of the vowel sounds of modern humans… Neandertals had sufficiently complex things to talk about, and just how they did so is less important than the fact that they did talk.” So, determining how they talked was left up to Auel for her writing purposes. She suggests that Neandertals used grunting noises and hand gestures to communicate complex ideas, and this seems like a plausible explanation. For the most part, the Neandertals in her novel stick to a simple sentence structure and avoid complex sentences, but sometimes the language seems to complex to be expressed through grunts and hand gestures. For example, “I talked to her for a while, she’s really nice, and she acts perfectly normal. I can’t help but wonder, though, do you think she’ll ever find a mate?” Sometimes it seems like Auel uses flowery language, which does not seem to fit her description of Neandertals. It’s hard to believe that people that do not understand the concept of counting would be able to express the meaning behind the words “perfectly” and “wonder”.
Furthermore, she assumes that Neandertals had a great amount of medical knowledge. In the novel, Iza could cure colds, ease arthritis, determine forms of birth control, cause abortions, and many other things. Like language, the use of medicines in Neandertal society has to be assumed. There isn’t any proof that medical remedies existed, but it is not unreasonable to believe that Neandertals could discover natural medicines. However, even if medicine was not available, it is clear that some individuals were taken care of. For example, a skeleton of a severely disabled man in Shanidar, Iraq, which was represented by the character Creb, shows that some disabled individuals were supported in order to live.
Auel explains other advances of Neandertals when she explains their use of tools. In the novel, Neandertals used slings, rock knives, and spears. All of these things could have existed in Neandertal tribes. If leather slings existed, which is not improbable, they would not be preserved in fossil records, so we have no proof that slings were used for hunting. However there is evidence that knives and spears were used for hunting. In the novel, spears were used to hunt large animals, such as mammoths, but researchers still debate if Neandertals were scavengers or if they hunted large animals. Some evidence that suggests that Neandertals did hunt large animals can be seen on the wear patterns of sharp stone points, and these wear patterns may have been cause by wooden shafts to create spears. The discovered rock tools of Neandertals were made out of flint by using a flaking method, as it was in the novel, to create very sharp points.
Auel’s descriptions of Neandertals and their tools are not very controversial, but her ideas of gender characteristics and ritual practices can be debated. In the novel, she follows the Binford Model of gender separation and places different behavioral patterns on men and women. Women are not allowed to use weapons and only men are allowed to hunt, which is similar to the beliefs of Lewis Binford, who believes that men used hunting tools while women used tools for food preparation. However, some anthropologists do not believe there is enough evidence to assume that there is a definitive difference between the tools that men and women used.
As far as ritual practices are concerned, there has been evidence to suggest that Neandertals had either spiritual or ritual practices. In the novel, Neandertals buried their dead with a ceremony, and they believed that cave bears held spiritual powers. Anthropologists have found evidence of Neandertals that were buried with tools and other belongings, but while some believe that these findings prove that Neandertals believed in an afterlife, others think that finding tools near the bodies is completely coincidental. It is possible that Neandertals did have a strong sense spirituality, but it is also possible that tool remains have been left next to bones due to natural causes; both beliefs are open to debate.
The most controversial subject of the book is Auel’s assumption that Neandertals and modern humans are actually the same species and could interbreed. Ayla has a child form the Neandertal Broud, and their ability to successfully breed implies that they were actually of the same species. According to Auel, the interbreeding was not an isolated incident, and Ayla eventually finds a Neandertal woman that had a child from a modern human. The interbreeding of the two populations is not entirely impossible, and some anthropologists think that Neandertals disappeared after interbreeding with modern humans instead of disappearing through extinction. Some anthropologists believe that Neandertals and modern humans were two completely different species, while anthropologists like Wolpoff and Caspari think that there is not enough variation between the fossils of Neandertals and modern humans to assert that they were different species.
Overall, Auel’s novel is supported by strong evidence, even if some issues are still under debate, but since there is not a definitive history of human evolution, she was allowed to be creative. Some of her analysis of Neandertals has no evidence at all, as seen with the telepathic abilities of the clan, but she makes it seem believable. Clan of the Cave Bear is obviously fiction and very farfetched at times, but it is still educational. It explores how Neandertals might have lived, but most importantly, it dispels former popular assumptions that Neandertals were ignorant and primitive. Auel humanizes Neandertals and gives them a sense of well-deserved dignity.