Jean Auel is the bestselling author of a series of novels set 30 thousand years ago in ice age Europe. The novels follow the life of a young Cro-magnon woman raised by Neanderthals. Auel’s most recent novel, the sixth in the series, is called The Land of Painted Caves. Jean Auel spoke with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar.
What inspired you to write about stone age life?
The story did. I started out with an idea for a story of a young woman who was living with people who were different. And I wanted something substantial, not just a different colored hair or eyes or anything. So I started looking around, doing a little research at home, starting with the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then going to the library and finding out that there really was this wonderful period in our own history when we lived in ice age Europe, and the Neanderthals lived there also. And they were also intelligent human beings, in spite of what Hollywood has been trying to tell us for years. That’s trouble to many of us who have been educated by Hollywood, rather than what I now have discovered are actually facts that make the Neanderthal a much more human than some people have thought.
What kind of research went into The Land of Painted Caves?
Most of it was really library research, reading the books by the specialists. I’ve read an awful lot of -ology books, climatology, speleology. I came up with the idea. But the real fun and the real excitement came when I got into the research and discovered how much was there that we didn’t know. So I decided I wanted to tell it, in a way that was understandable to most people. So that’s fiction.
What do you think about the intersection of science in your series of books?
The intersection is of course where I live. I love science, first of all. I’ve always had a love affair with science. But it was really the story that drove it. And when I got into it and realized how much was there, that they weren’t just savages, that say Hollywood has convinced us they were. Cro-magnon were our own grandparents, many times over. But they were anatomically early modern humans. So they had the capabilities that we had. And the Neanderthal, while they were different, we’re still not entirely sure in what ways they were different. We certainly know that they were intelligent. They had a very large brain, larger than the average of today. What we don’t know for sure is exactly how they used it. So before I could ever write a Neanderthal character, I had to invent my Neanderthal.
What went on inside of your brain as you’ve witnessed cave paintings, which form some of the core images of The Land of Painted Caves?
I’ve been very fortunate, because I’ve met many of the specialists in the field, and they have been extremely kind and helpful. Almost any place that I’ve wanted to go, I’ve gotten not only permission but usually a special guided tour. I’ve been in the Chauvet cave, which was found in 1994. And it was actually Jean-Marie Chauvet who took us there, along with the curator who was in charge of that cave. It was not only going there and looking, but going in and learning. So it was wonderful. And that particular cave is gorgeous all by itself. It’s one of these caves with orange and white draperies on the wall. It’s just a beautiful cave. But then, of course, there’s a tremendous amount of art in the cave. It’s a huge cave. So it was just great fun to be able to explore that.
Seeing the cave paintings up close, rather than say on the Internet, that must have taken your breath away.
That’s the thing. Even though apparently there’s a movie coming out in which Jean Claud, who is a friend, has a starring role – he’s a scientist who recognized as probably the top scientist in terms of cave art in the world – but even seeing it in a movie, even seeing it on the Internet, it’s not the same as when you are there, inside that environment. It really helps you to get a sense of that world.
We have a question a question from Twitter, anthropologist and author Barbara J. King of the College of William and Mary asks, “in considering the Chauvet and Lascaux caves, which set of ancient images do you find most stirring, and why?”
I actually have found both of them – I’ve been in many, many caves, and not all of them are gorgeous and beautiful. They’re all interesting. The first cave that I was ever in was Lascaux. And I ended up crying. It was such a powerful experience. And I did the same thing in Chauvet. I got in front of that panel were those four horses are there in perspective – it overwhelmed me. Maybe that’s what came through in the book, I hope.
You’ve written in great detail about the day-to-day life of ancient Europeans, from what they had for lunch to how they have sex, and more. Would you describe yours as an obsession with cave people?
I think that the reason that you want to have a lot of detail and a lot of explanation. But if you’re a modern person, and you’re writing a contemporary novel, and you say, “he got into his car and he drove into the city and had lunch.” It doesn’t matter if the city is London, or New York, or Brisbane, or Tokyo, or wherever it is, it’s understandable. You know what that means. But where does a caveman go to have lunch? Most of us don’t know that kind of stuff. And if you leave it out, it’s just a big blank for people, because they don’t understand it either. So I had to find out, in order to make the story more believable, so that readers could suspend their sense of disbelief and say, this is really how it could have been.
What’s the most important thing that you want people today to know about The Land of Painted Caves?
I’d like people to know that when we think about our ancestors, especially the ones that were first in Europe, the modern humans first in Europe, that they really were ourselves. And that we can learn about them. One of the interesting things is that there’s no evidence of warfare in those early, modern humans. You don’t get that until you get into agriculture. So I think that if it’s something that we learned how to do, we can unlearn it.
Jean Auel’s newest novel is The Land of Painted Caves.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.