Friday, May 13, 2016

Adventure classics – Girl meets bear-god: what's possible?

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel
with commentary from The Cave Bear Story, by Björn Kurtén
By Ursus, I thought I’d found it – Ursus spelaeus, that is, the missing link, I hoped, between Jean Auel’s 1980 spear-swashing prehistoric romance, The Clan of the Cave Bear and Björn Kurtén’s near-contemporary prehistoric writings, including his The Cave Bear Story: Life and Death of a Vanished Animal.

It first seemed too much of a coincidence that Auel’s first book and one of Finnish scientist Kurtén’s slim and all too rare works of fiction, Dance of the Tiger, were both near contemporaries of each other with almost mirror image plots. Both described the adoption of modern human children into groups of Neandertals (or Neanderthals – the pronunciation is the same) during the great Ice Ages. Unfortunately, further investigation showed that Kurtén’s work didn’t appear in English until 1980, the same year Auel’s more massive book. So unless she wrote like the wind. . .  But no, it wasn’t going to work.

Maybe, I thought, searching the catalog of the Dallas Public Library, there was some earlier writing of Kurtén’s that Auel had referenced. Could it be his nonfiction, The Cave Bear Story, available in English by 1976? No, again. In fact, Kurtén completely demolishes the title myth of Auel’s book – ritualistic worship of the gigantic extinct cave bears by a clan of Neanderthals (or any humans, for that matter).

Most modern paleontologists agree with Kurtén. And to think what a lovely central motif Auel’s brand of cave bear worship made. What reader could forget the great gathering of Neanderthal clans in The Clan of the Cave Bear, a gathering at which the great bear is killed and eaten. Or the sacramental, males-only accidentally observed by Auel’s human heroine, Ayla, which confers her with shamanistic powers.

Not that Auel went completely out on a limb with the bear-god idea. The myth’s source lay in the early 20th century discovery by Emil Bächler at Drachenloch (Dragon’s Lair) Cave in the Swiss Alps.  Located at an altitude that would have made it accessible only during an interglacial period coinciding with the Neanderthals’ early existence in Europe, the cave contained great numbers of cave bear remains, including skulls and leg bones. “To his surprise,” Kurtén writes, “Bächler came to realize that the skulls and bones . . . seemed to be oriented rigidly in certain preferred directions. Could they have been deliberately placed there by man?”

Unfortunately for Bächler’s theory, he took no photographs, and what appeared to him to be  human artifacts were destroyed during a later excavation. His own sketches, published in 1923 and 1940, contradict both each other and his written descriptions. Finally, there is no surviving evidence for any human occupation of the cave other than brief occasional visits by individuals or small groups.

But what about the alignment of the bones? Wasn’t that of human origin?

“It is evident that repeated pushing (by successive waves of hibernating bears) of such elongate objects as skulls, jaws, and long bones into niches or along walls will inevitably tend to align them in the same direction,” Kurtén writes, “. . . while skulls in the middle of the cave floor will be trampled to fragments. . . ”

And Auel’s image of the mostly vegetarian cave bears as benign guiding spirits? “The African buffalo is also a complete vegetarian, but he does not impress one as docile,” Kurtén reports wryly. Tellingly, his books are not among the references Auel’s lists on her website.

I’ve read all of Auel’s books, devouring such tidbits as how people could boil water before the invention of waterproof vessels (pottery or metal). Or herbal use, or tool making, or leather tanning, or how to hunt a wooly rhinoceros. If she writes another book, as is sometimes rumored, I’ll read it too. But for reference material, I’ll take Kurtén.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a May of prehistoric fiction with Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger.)

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