The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) - Movie Review for History Teachers | Student Handouts
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The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)
World History > Early Humans > Early Humans Books and Films
The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) - Movie Review and Guide for History Teachers Length: 98 minutes (1 hour, 38 minutes)

Age appropriateness: The Clan of the Cave Bear is officially rated "R" in the United States due to graphic physical and sexual violence. This film is inappropriate for classroom viewing. However, most parents will not have a problem with their mature teenagers (of high school age) watching this at home on DVD.

Creators and stars: Adel Hammoud, Barbara Duncan, Curtis Armstrong, Daryl Hannah, Gerald I. Isenberg, Gloria Lee, James Remar, Jan de Bont, Jean M. Auel, John Doolittle, John Sayles, John Wardlow, Karen Elizabeth Austin, Keith Wardlow, Martin Doyle, Michael Chapman, Mike Muscat, Nicole Eggert, Pamela Reed, Paul Carafotes, Richard Briggs, Sidney Kimmel, Thomas G. Waites, Tony Montanaro

Accuracy: The Clan of the Cave Bear is fictional, based on the novel of the same name by Jean M. Auel, part of her "Earth's Children" series. Like the book(s), this movie is not always a factual depiction of prehistory.

Review: Jean M. Auel's "Earth's Children" series was incredibly popular when released, and interested a generation of readers in anthropology. Although not always accurate, novels like The Clan of the Cave Bear described Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal life in a way that brought these peoples alive for many who would otherwise know nothing about them. Therefore, it is hard for me to entirely dismiss this screen adaptation of Auel's work. Watching The Clan of the Cave Bear may inspire a teenager to learn more.

However, The Clan of the Cave Bear is filled with anachronisms and questionable plot points.

  • Neanderthals lived in groups of between five and ten people, while Cro-Magnons lived in groups of between twenty and thirty. It is unlikely that a clan the size of the one that adopts Ayla (played by Daryl Hannah) would have existed. Likewise, it would have been very difficult for a young Cro-Magnon girl to find herself entirely alone.
  • Neanderthals did not trade extensively. This lack of trade is taken by anthropologists to indicate that contact between Neanderthal groups was rare, and may have been limited to the acquisition of mates. There is no reason to believe that anything akin to the meeting of the clans depicted in the film ever would or could have happened (nor, for that matter, was such a meeting being held by Cro-Magnon groups likely).
  • Neanderthals never invented a needle for sewing (this was a Cro-Magnon tool). It is hard to tell, but it looked like some of the Neanderthals in this film are wearing sewn garments, rather than just animal skins.
  • Neanderthals died out circa 30,000 years ago. Blond hair essentially did not exist until around the Neolithic (according to the research of archaeogeneticists), about 11,000 years ago. The notion of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman running around with Neanderthals is virtually impossible.
  • The sling is believed to have been invented near the start of the Neolithic, about 20,000 years after the Neanderthals died out. In fact, the Neanderthals are not known to have ever used any sort of projectile weapons.
  • Additionally, Auel's story takes a lot of artistic liberties in assuming that Neanderthal culture was rigidly sexist.
At its core, The Clan of the Cave Bear is the story of a (1) blonde woman overcoming Neanderthal (2) sexism by mastering the (3) sling. Since two of these things are impossible and one is dubious, this film clearly has little educative value. Regardless, this movie is entertaining. It's also one of the very few feature films dealing with the subject of prehistory. So long as a parent-teacher steps in to point out the unrealistic aspects of this movie, it can be a fun film to enjoy on family movie night. Click here to enlarge the official film poster.
Review questions: (1) What happens to Ayla's mother? (2) Why will the clan never fully accept Ayla? (3) Ayla is trained in what profession? (4) Why is Ayla sent away from the clan for a month? (5) Why must Ayla ultimately leave the clan?

Vocabulary terms: caves, clan, Cro-Magnon, hunter, Ice Age, memories, Neanderthal, sling, spirit, strength, totem, weapon
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The Clan of the Cave Bear Movie Review Publication Date for Citation Purposes: July 1, 2012