Earth’s Children is a series of speculative alternative historical fiction novels written by Jean M. Auel set circa 30,000 years before present. There are six novels in the series.
The series is set in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic era, after the date of the first ceramics discovered, but before the last advance of glaciers. The books focus on the period of co-existence between CroMagnons and Neanderthals.
In Auel’s series, two cultures vie for resources, space, and survival: the Clan, which is what Neanderthals call themselves, and the Cro-Magnons (whom Ayla, with her Clan upbringing, generally refers to as “The Others”). Both races are fairly different in culture, society and technology, but with some overlap: both depend on flint for their tools; both recognize the importance of fire and use it; both hunt and gather.
Physiologically, the Clan are heavier and broader but also shorter than the people of The Others. They are very slow to embrace change and to innovate, and they still chase after animals to spear them directly, whereas the Cro-Magnons are enthusiastic about innovation and have moved on to projectile spears. The Clan’s tools, clothing, and household implements are similarly less refined and sometimes less effective than those of their Cro-Magnon counterparts, whose implements and other goods are more technologically sophisticated.
As a whole, the series is a tale of personal discovery: coming-of-age, invention, cultural complexities, and, beginning with the second book, explicit romantic sex. It tells the story of Ayla, an orphaned Cro-Magnon girl who is adopted and raised by a tribe of Neanderthals and who later embarks on a journey to find the Others (her own kind), meeting along the way her romantic interest and supporting co-protagonist, Jondalar.
The story arc in part comprises a travel tale, in which the two lovers journey from the region of Ukraine to Jondalar’s home in what is now France, along an indirect route up the Danube River valley. In the third and fourth works, they meet various groups of Cro-Magnons and encounter their culture and technology. The couple finally return to southwestern France and Jondalar’s people in the fifth novel. The series includes a highly-detailed focus on botany, herbology, herbal medicine,archaeology and anthropology, but it also features substantial amounts of romance, coming-of-age crises, and — employing significant literary license — the attribution of certain advances and inventions to the protagonists.
In addition, Auel’s series incorporates a number of recent archeological and anthropological theories. It also suggested the notion of Sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding. Although in recent years the sequencing of Neandertal mitochondrial DNA first indicated that it was highly improbable that Neandertals contributed to the human genome, further research of the human genome has revealed conclusively that Neanderthals did in fact interbreed with non-African humans.
The author’s treatment of unconventional sexual practices (which are central to her hypothesized nature-centered religions) has earned the series the twentieth place on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.
The books include Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of the Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, The Shelters of Stone, and The Land of Painted Caves.