The Clan of the Cave Bear (Earth's Children #1) by Jean Auel (1980)
The Clan of the title is a group of Neanderthals, and Auel has taken what is known about them (at the time of writing, anyhow) and created a whole society. I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of this was made up and there is much we don't know about this extinct species of human, but she makes it very vivid and believable.
Auel's Neanderthals have active spiritual lives, constantly trying to please the spirits they believe play large roles in their lives. Each person has a totem, the spirit of an animal they are associated with and which protects them. Male totems should be stronger than female totems, and which totem is yours is determined by the Mog-ur, or spiritual leader of the group. It is determined that Ayla's totem is the cave bear, a decidedly male totem, which causes much consternation among the Clan. Their memories also play an important role. In addition to one's own memories, each person has access also to the memories of their ancestors, and even a larger racial memory. They can all access these memories together, joining their minds telepathically. Ayla does not have this ability, yet another feature that sets her apart.
Although the novel contains dialogue, it is explained at the beginning that the clan's language is primarily a sign language. They aren't capable of the range of sounds that Ayla makes. Her laughter and tears are strange and alarming to them until they get used to it. They are unable to lie, or to count very high, and are surprised by Ayla's cognitive leaps which are out of their grasp. Ayla is a new breed, and therefore a threat to some in the clan. Though she lacks the deep memories they have, she is capable of a different kind of understanding, and isn't held back from changing and learning new things the way they have been.
Even in this first book of the series we know that these people have remained unchanged for a long time and will be dying out, and I'm curious about how that theme progresses later in the series. The rules forbidding women from hunting, it is explained, may have been helping the clan towards its own demise. Because only women with no desire to hunt were allowed to survive, the adaptability of the race was curtailed. It is a huge shock when it's discovered that Ayla is drawn to hunting.
Perhaps because of her innate differences, Ayla was constantly getting into trouble for acting in ways that were unacceptable for women. Women were forbidden from even touching tools used for hunting, but Ayla defies these rules and learns to use a sling to hunt. Every time Ayla broke a Clan rule, I thought "When will she learn?" But I think it was her innate qualities which drove her to behave in ways unacceptable to the group, to know more things, to make discoveries they couldn't, and she found it extremely difficult to live by their rules.
I was quite interested in the day-to-day life of the clan, their hierarchies, and the treatment of women and those considered deformed. A lot of mundane tasks were fairly captivating to me, like gathering herbs, cooking, hunting, the specifics of cave living - really, a lot of the same things I love about the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. (Right down to the cave living - remember when the Ingalls family lived in a dugout?) Equally fascinating were some of the less common, but still important, practices and rituals. The punishment for serious crimes is the death curse, in which the Clan decides a person is dead and refuses to see or interact with them, either temporarily or permanently.
I grew to really like the characters, especially Iza and her brother Creb, the Mog-ur, who acted as Ayla's parents. The interpersonal relationships in the novel were probably the best part for me, which is no surprise since I prefer character-driven novels. I liked watching Ayla win over person after person, each distrusting the new stranger until they got to know her, or learned something about her that they were able to fit into their limited worldview. One Clan member, however, would not accept her - Broud, the hot-headed young man destined to become leader one day. The relationship between Broud and Ayla provided much of the tension in the story and was painful to see, but also believable given the combination of Clan traditions and his personality.
I've been wanting to get around to reading this forever and now that I have I want to just move on to the second book. Right now I have other books that need to take priority (so many book groups!), and I fear I will then get distracted and never come back to this series. But I hope I do, because I can't help but root for Ayla as she makes her way through the harsh, ancient world.