Author Says Prehistoric Humans Were a Lot like Us

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

If someone calls you a Neanderthal, maybe you should take it as a compliment.

When it comes to defending the reputation of prehistoric humans, you'd be hard pressed to find a better advocate than Jean Auel, the Portland author of the hugely popular Earth's Children series of novels.

Auel brought her defense to the University of Oregon on Monday, when she spoke to about 60 students in anthropology professor Sarah McClure's Archaeology in Film and Fiction course. Auel assured the students that, Hollywood's images notwithstanding, early humans living through an ice age 30,000 years ago were more like us than we give them credit for.

"Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons had to be very intelligent," said Auel. "They didn't read or drive a car, but they recognized hundreds of plants and animals, and knew where to find them and how to use them."

We shouldn't be so surprised, said Auel: Neanderthals had a brain capacity larger than our own.

Auel first introduced readers to Ayla, a 5-year-old Cro-Magnon orphan girl adopted by a clan of Neanderthals, in "The Clan of the Cave Bear," published in 1980. In that and four subsequent books, Auel has honed her reputation for tireless research that allows her to place her characters amid the details of everyday prehistoric life.

The five books have sold nearly 40 million copies in more than 30 languages, and Auel (pronounced "Owl") let out a secret Monday sure to delight her legion of fans: It's going to take seven, not six, novels to complete Ayla's story.

"I just realized I can't get it done in six," she said. "I know the whole story line, but I just can't fit it in one more book. There's too much to tell yet."

Auel married at 18 and had five children by the time she was 25.

With a background in electronics and business, she had no creative writing experience beyond some dabbling in poetry when the idea popped in her head to write a short story about a young woman in prehistoric times.

She went first to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and then to the library to learn more about early humans. She came home with 40 to 50 books, and her short story soon evolved into a novel, and then a series of novels.

"I guess 40 to 50 books are not needed for a short story," she told the students.

In the years since, Auel has traveled to caves and other archaeological sites across Europe and Asia, and completed courses that have taught her everything from wild plant identification to how to build a snow cave. …