Sometimes it feels as though entire hominid species have evolved in less time than it takes to read “The Land of Painted Caves,” the sixth and final installment of Jean M. Auel’s best-selling prehistoric saga, “Earth’s Children.” The extremely earnest, ambitious and often intriguing series, which began in 1980 with “The Clan of the Cave Bear,” attempts to encapsulate much of human (and proto-human) prehistory as it follows the life of a Cro-Magnon woman. She reintroduces herself early in “The Land of Painted Caves”:

“I am Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, acolyte of the Zelandoni, First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, mated to Jondalar, Master Flint-Knapper and brother of Joharran, leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. Formerly I was Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, Chosen by the spirit of the Cave Lion, Protected by the Cave Bear, and friend of the horses, Whinney, Racer, and Gray, and the four-legged hunter, Wolf.”

Um, okay if we just call you Ayla? 

Even die-hard Auel fans may want to skim over those sections of the book where characters greet each other for the first time. Which happens fairly often. “The Land of the Painted Caves” unfolds in episodic fashion, following Ayla, her family and their cohort in seasonal and ritual migrations among other cave habitations and clans.  There is not much of a plot, beyond some minor marital discord between Ayla and her beloved Cro-Magnon mate, Jondalar. The narrative is propelled by Auel’s knowledge (much of it necessarily speculative) of human species interaction during the late Pleistocene epoch, roughly 35,000 to 25,000 years ago. 

Orphaned as a 5-year-old by an earthquake, Ayla was raised by Neanderthals, whom she refers to as the Clan but most other Cro-Magnons deride as Flatheads. In “The Land of Painted Caves,” Ayla is the mother of two children: a son fathered by one of the Clan, a child she was forcibly separated from when she was cast out of her adoptive kinship group; and a daughter by Jondalar.  She is also a Zelandoni acolyte, a medicine woman and healer viewed with awe and sometimes suspicion because of her skill in taming animals previously seen only as prey (horses) or predators (wolves).

But Ayla’s gifts don’t stop with being the first to domesticate a Pleistocene horse.  She’s an innovator who sometimes wears men’s clothing and develops or adapts new technologies such as the fire-starter, spear-thrower, harness and travois. She utilizes and understands sign language (the mostly non-verbal Clan’s primary means of communication); has prescient knowledge of moon phases and astronomy; possesses an excellent grasp of basic psychological counseling and legal techniques, as well as keen insight into human contraceptive and reproductive issues, which, then as now, prove to be hugely divisive among both men and women.

Sadly, Auel is no stylist. Her prose is stilted, reminiscent of middle-school texts of 50 years ago, and relies heavily on the info dump:

“In a society without currency, status was more than prestige, it was a form of wealth. People were eager to do favors for a person with standing because obligations always had to be repaid in kind.  Debt was incurred when asking someone to make something, or to do something, or to go someplace, because of the implicit promise to return a favor of like value. No one really wanted to be in debt, but everyone was, and to have someone of high standing be in your debt gave you more status.”

Readers looking for more nuanced fictional evocations of our prehistory should turn to the anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s marvelous “The Animal Wife” and “Reindeer Moon” or William Golding’s haunting and disturbing “The Inheritors,” a novel unjustly overshadowed by “Lord of the Flies.”  

Neither does Auel engage much in the sort of speculation that fueled her earlier books. There, she wrote about successful interbreeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, a notion still considered controversial when those books were published, but which has since been supported by advances in DNA research. Much of “The Land of Painted Caves” takes place among the paleolithic sites of the title, but despite her previous speculative forays, Auel doesn’t do much riffing on contemporary theories regarding ancient art, as discussed by historians, scientists and writers such as Gregory Curtis, Carlo Ginzburg, R. Dale Guthrie and David Lewis-Williams.  

Instead, “Painted Caves” is more of a hit parade of human cultural evolution: Hallucinogenic herbs! Discovery of paternity! Dawn of art appreciation! And, like its predecessor volumes, it refutes one of the basic dictums of fiction: Its central character, Ayla, doesn’t really change during the course of her event-filled life; she remains plucky, inquisitive, inventive, brave, loyal and sometimes impulsive. 

Instead, the world around her changes, with vast leaps in the development of early modern human culture and society, often (if improbably) introduced or encouraged by Ayla herself. This arresting, often strikingly vivid panorama, evocative of the painted cavern walls that provide a backdrop to the novel, is the series’s greatest achievement. And there is real sweetness in the saga’s finale, when Ayla’s legacy to the world — both hers and ours — is made clear. Myriad things have changed in the last 30,000 years, but the endurance of human love is not one of them.  

Hand’s most recent novel is “Illyria.”


By Jean M. Auel.

Crown. 757 pp. $30.