A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A former circuit board designer, author Jean Auel has slept in a snow cave and tanned buckskin in her quest to re-create the Paleolithic world.
Late last April, publishers and journalists from a dozen countries converged on the bucolic village of Les Eyzies, beside the Vézère River in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. They came to the self-styled "capital of prehistory" to celebrate 66-year old Oregonian Jean M. Auel on the occasion of the publication of her fifth and latest novel, The Shelters of Stone. Les Eyzies contains the rock shelter of Cro-Magnon, a name synonymous with the first modern Europeans, and lies near many well-known sites occupied by these people and their Neandertal contemporaries. What better place to honor the woman who has introduced millions worldwide to the lives of our 30,000-year-old predecessors?
Starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980, Auel's Earth's Children novels have made her an international publishing phenomenon with sales approaching 35 million copies in 27 languages. It's been 12 years since her last book, and The Shelters of Stone immediately soared to the top of bestseller lists across the world.
For the uninitiated, Auel's saga follows the life of Ayla, a blond, blue-eyed orphan rescued from near death by a band of Neandertals. Auel's Neandertals lack full-blown verbal speech, but have an expressive language of gesture and posture. Unable to think abstractly or envision the future, their brains nonetheless store vast amounts of information and experiences spanning their species' history. Ayla comes under the tutelage of Creb, a partially blind, crippled holy man who soon notes her creative abilities. In the course of the books, Ayla becomes a skilled hunter and healer, raises a cave lion, tames a wild horse and a wolf, and discovers, then rediscovers, sexual pleasure with her Cro-Magnon companion Jondalar. From him, Ayla learns spoken language and modern human ways. Together, they embark on an epic journey across Ice Age Europe.
From the outset of her writing career, Auel has diligently learned as much as she can about her characters' environment and the archaeological evidence for Paleolithic behavior. What began as a bibliography on index cards in a recipe box has grown to a personal library of a few thousand books and articles. She subscribes to numerous professional journals, including Current Anthropology, American Antiquity, and the Journal of Archaeological Science. The Auels regularly attend the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. In 1993, they hosted their own symposium near Portland, where an international gathering of scholars gave talks on Paleolithic symbolism and enjoyed Dom Pérignon and Château d'Yquem from the Auels' cellar.
Beyond her library research, Auel tries to directly experience prehistoric life. While writing The Clan of the Cave Bear, she helped build and slept in a snow cave on volcanic Mount Hood. In eastern Oregon, she learned volumes worth of traditional survival skills from primitive technology expert Jim Riggs, who Auel calls "the kind of person you could put into one end of a wilderness naked, and he'd come out the other end fed, clothed, and sheltered."
Auel's adventures don't stop at the Oregon border, however. She visits archaeological sites and museums to gather impressions that add texture to her stories. Her first research trip occurred after she completed The Valley of Horses. Archaeologist David Abrams of Sacramento State University approached her about touring Europe's Paleolithic sites. The two worked out an itinerary that would help Auel research her forthcoming books, The Mammoth Hunters and The Plains of Passage, and in the summer of 1982 the Auels spent several weeks traveling with Abrams and art historian Diane Kelly.
During a private tour of Lascaux (the first of three visits she's made), Auel vividly remembers walking down a gradual slope in the cave's dim light. As the light rose slightly, she lifted her head and gazed on the magnificent painted beasts. "By the time I started breathing," she says, "I was sobbing. It literally brought me to tears. It left me gasping."
Blake Edgar is the co-author, with Richard G. Klein, of The Dawn of Human Culture (2002); and, with Donald Johanson, of From Lucy to Language (1996).