THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (1980) A five-year-old girl, who readers come to understand is Cro-Magnon, is orphaned and left homeless by an earthquake that destroys her family's camp. She wanders aimlessly, naked and unable to feed herself, for several days. Having been attacked and nearly killed by a cave lion and suffering from starvation, exhaustion, and infection of her wounds, she collapses, on the verge of death.
The narrative switches to a group of people who call themselves "The Clan" and who we come to understand are Neanderthal, whose cave was destroyed in the earthquake and who are searching for a new home. The medicine woman of the group, Iza, discovers the girl and asks permission from Brun, the head of the Clan, to help the ailing child, despite the child being clearly a member of "the Others", the distrusted antagonists of the Clan. The child is adopted by Iza and her brother Creb. Creb is this group's "Mog-ur" or shaman, despite being deformed as a result of the difficult birth resulting from his abnormally large head and the later loss of an arm and eye after being attacked by a cave bear. The clan call her Ayla, the closest they can come to saying her "strange" name. After traveling with them for a while and starting to heal, Ayla wanders away from the group when they stop to discuss what they should do since they haven't found a new home and she discovers a huge, beautiful cave, perfect for them; many of the people begin to regard Ayla as lucky, especially since good fortune continues to come their way as she lives among them.
In Auel's books, the Neanderthal possess only limited vocal apparatus and rarely speak, but have a highly developed sign language. They do not laugh or even smile, and they do not cry; when Ayla weeps, Iza thinks she has an eye disease.
Ayla's different thought processes lead her to break important Clan customs, particularly the taboo against females handling weapons. She is self-willed and spirited, but tries hard to fit in with the Neanderthals, although she has to learn everything first-hand; she does not possess the ancestral memories of the Clan which enable them to do certain tasks after being shown only once.
Iza trains Ayla as a medicine woman "of her line", the most prestigious line of medicine women out of all of the Clans. It takes her much longer to train Ayla than it will her own daughter, Uba, since Ayla does not possess the memories of the Clan. When Ayla grows up, Iza is concerned she will never find a mate and no one will want her, making her a burden to the Clan, so she trains her to be a highly respected medicine woman so she will have her own "status" and will not have to rely on the status of a possibly lowly mate.
Ayla's main antagonist is Broud, son of the leader, an egomaniac who feels that she takes credit and attention away from him. As the two mature, the hatred between them festers. When they are young adults, Broud rapes Ayla, but she becomes pregnant, and rejoices in the birth of a son. Her son is almost taken away from her because he seems deformed to the Clan, since he does not look like them and, in the beginning, cannot hold up his head.
The book ends with Creb's death, Broud's succession to the leadership, and his banishment of Ayla, who sets off to find other people of her own kind. She is not allowed to take her son with her.
THE VALLEY OF THE HORSES (1982) The book starts off from the events at the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear detailing the life of a young Cro-Magnon woman named Ayla who has just been exiled from the Clan, the band of Neanderthals who had raised her from early childhood. Ayla now searches for her own people, whom the Clan refer to as "the Others".
In a parallel narrative, Jondalar, a young Cro-Magnon man of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, accompanies his impetuous younger half-brother Thonolan on a traditional rite of passage called the Great Journey. In these episodes, we learn of the Cro-Magnon's paleolithic nature religion, centered on the worship of the Great Mother of All, and follow their adventures and sexual exploits. It is also through these episodes that the animosity, verging on hatred, between the Others and the Clan (whom they refer to derogatorily as "flatheads") is introduced. The Others have repeatedly persecuted the Clan, taking land and resources, but justify it by classing them as animals. However, over the course of his adventures, Jondalar starts to question this prejudice, noting that no other animals have fire, tools or communicate intelligently, nor are they actively hated or attacked-as-sport by his people.
Ayla, alone and ritually ostracized from the only people she has ever known, travels steadily from the Beran Sea peninsular home of her former tribe north for around half a year until finding the book's titular valley sunk deep into the windy landscape of the periglacial loess steppes in Ukraine. Worried that she might never find the Others, she begins to prepare for winter. Finding a suitable cave and many conveniences in the valley, she establishes a comfortable but lonely life there.
Her desire for companionship leads her to tame a filly whose mother she had killed, naming her Whinney. She also takes in and treats an injured cave lion cub, which she names Baby.
In the course of their journey, Jondalar and Thonolan have met women and hope to settle with them, but Thonolan's mate dies in childbirth and Jondalar feels he is not really in love with his woman friend. They continue on their journey and meet up with the Mamutoi people, planning to join them later in the year.
Jondalar and Ayla meet when Thonolan is killed by a cave lion—Baby, now fully grown and with a mate of his own. Ayla heals Jondalar's injuries and they begin to learn to communicate and get to know each other. Jondalar overcomes his inbred prejudice against the Clan and Ayla learns that all her peculiarities which confused and angered the Clan are actually fully accepted and encouraged by the Others.
The two fall in love as the book nears its end, and decide to leave the Valley of Horses and explore regions around the valley Ayla has not yet investigated.
THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS (1985) This book picks up where The Valley of Horses ends; Ayla and Jondalar, meet a group known as the Mamutoi, or Mammoth Hunters, with whom they live for a period of time. As the group's name suggests, their hosts rely on mammoth not only for food but also for building materials and a number of other commodities - and indeed for spiritual sustenance. The protagonists make their home with the Lion Camp of the Mammoth Hunters, which features a number of respected Mamutoi. Wisest of their nation is Old Mamut, their eldest shaman and the leader of the entire Mamutoi priesthood, who becomes Ayla's mentor and colleague in the visionary and esoteric fields of thought. Observing Ayla's affinity with horses and wolves, Mamut begins to introduce her into the ranks of the Mamuti (mystics).
Mamut is also one of the first to become aware of Ayla's unique upbringing. Many years ago, while on the Journey that all young men take for a rite of passage, he broke his arm, and was healed by the medicine woman of Ayla's Neanderthal clan (the grandmother of Ayla's adoptive mother Iza). This story is referenced in Clan of the Cave Bear as the Neanderthals rationalize Ayla's behavior in terms of what they know about "the Others" (Cro-Magnon). Mamut learned some of the Clan sign language during that stay, and became aware of the fact that the Clan are human (as opposed to other animals, as is the common opinion of most of his people).
Also within the Lion Camp is a six-year-old boy named Rydag who, like Ayla's lost son Durc, is half Clan and half Other. He was adopted by the headman's mate, Nezzie, when his mother died giving birth to him. He cannot speak, having the same vocal limitations as the Clan, but he also has their ancestral memories. Ayla quickly discovers this and teaches him, and the rest of the Lion Camp, the Clan sign language. Rydag is a sickly child, having a heart defect which limits him from even playing like the other children of the Camp. Many Mamutoi regard him as an animal, but Ayla and the Lion Camp are vehement in their defence of him. Rydag's intelligence, maturity and wit endear him to Jondalar as well, who learns to overcome his cultural prejudice towards Clan and half-Clan people.
More so than any other book in the Earth's Children series, The Mammoth Hunters relies on the tension created by the relationships between the characters to create a storyline. Ayla is susceptible to being deceived or confused; she was brought up among essentially honest people who due to their visual language are incapable of deception. She also does not know that when a man asks her to "share Pleasures" with him, she has the option of refusing, since Clan women did not. Thus, there are a number of communication failures in her relationships with members of more complex societies, especially with Jondalar, who is obstinate and passionate. Jondalar, a Zelandoni, is a foreigner among the Mamutoi, and Ayla's acceptance in their society makes him feel separated from her. The primary conflict is a love triangle between Jondalar, Ayla, and Lion Camp member Ranec. Ayla is attracted to Ranec, shares "Pleasures" with him a few times, and comes close to marrying him before several last-minute revelations reunite the former pair. Some fans have criticized author Jean Auel for making the book somewhat of a soap opera compared to her other works. The author also uses the same technique (long minutely precise descriptive passages) for common sexual activity as she uses for stone age technology (e.g. flint-shaping). At the end of this novel, Ayla and Jondalar leave for the year-long return journey to Jondalar's people, the Zelandonii, a journey detailed in The Plains of Passage and continued in The Shelters of Stone.
THE PLAINS OF PASSAGE (1990) This book picks up where The Valley of Horses ends; Ayla and Jondalar, meet a group known as tThe Plains of Passage describes the journey of Ayla and Jondalar west along the Great Mother River (the Danube), from the home of The Mammoth Hunters (roughly modern Ukraine) to Jondalar's homeland (close to Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France). During this journey, Ayla meets the various peoples who live along their line of march. These meetings, the attitudes and beliefs of these groups, and Ayla's response form an essential part of the story.
Characters range in description from innocent to bloodthirsty, from serious to comical, from noble to corrupt, from found to lost, and from peaceful to violent. All of these adjectives apply, interestingly, in some way to either Jondalar or Ayla. Ayla (and to some extent Jondalar) is often viewed by her new friends as mystic or supernatural, partially due to her friendships with the world's first known domesticated horses and wolf, but also due to her generous nature and wisdom.
As they encounter people Jondalar and his brother met on their journey eastward they have a hard time leaving them, especially after an offer to become joined with a high-ranking Sharamudoi couple. Jondalar declines the offer, giving as excuse his desire to have the lead mystic of his people search for and help his deceased brother cross over to the other side.
It concludes with Ayla and Jondalar's successful return to the Zelandoni, and Ayla's stated pregnancy, and Whinney's definite pregnancy
THE SHELTERS OF STONE (2002) Central to this book is the tension created by Ayla's healing art, her pregnancy, and the acceptance of her by Jondalar's people, the Zelandonii. Ayla was raised by Clan Neanderthals, known as "flatheads" to the Zelandonii and viewed as no better than animals. For the Zelandonii to accept Ayla they must first overcome their prejudice against the Neanderthals. Luckily for Ayla and Jondalar, some of the higher-ranking Zelandonii already have doubts of this misjudgment.
Two of their number, Echozar and Brukeval, are of partial Neanderthal ancestry and are ashamed of it. Echozar at least is pacified by Ayla's own story and by his (Echozar's) own marriage to Joplaya, Jondalar's close-cousin (half-sister). Brukeval, on the other hand, rejects his heritage utterly and refuses to listen to reason.
Jondalar's first romantic interest, Zelandoni, formerly known as Zolena, has now become the First among the spiritual leaders. She supports adopting Ayla into their society, if not least for the healing arts she brings to the cave, although Ayla also must overcome the feeling that she is uncomfortable with a full connection with the spirit world. After Ayla helps a mortally injured hunter live long enough to see his mate, the First senses that Ayla needs to be brought into the fold of the Zelandonia (mystics, named after their culture so as to identify themselves with it) so that she will be accepted as a healer by all the people of the cave.
At one point, Ayla persuades the native mothers to nurse a neglected infant, on the pretext that even a "flathead" would have done so in their place. This both shames them into agreeing (as noted by Jondalar's sister-in-law, Proleva) and educates the Zelandonii in the ways of their ex-neighbors.
Ayla is drawn ever closer to an as-yet-undetermined role in the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. Her knowledge of the healing arts as well as hunting force her to accept a role in the spiritual leadership of the group.
Through it all Jondalar is waiting for the summer meeting and matrimonial that will finally "tie the knot" for the two of them. This has been his ultimate goal since The Valley of Horses. Their daughter, Jonayla, named for her mother's belief a man's "essence" creates babies, which leads to Jondalar and Ayla each being part of the baby, not just their spirits, is born sometime after this event. Not long after the birth, Ayla finally decides to become Zelandonii's acolyte, if only so that the members of the Zelandonii will accept her as a healer.
This book is set in what is now the Vézère valley, near to Les Eyzies, in the Dordogne, southwest France. It was relatively densely populated in prehistoric times, with many open cliff-top dwellings that can still be seen, some of which have been turned into tourist attractions. The national museum of prehistory is located in this valley. Ayla also discovers the world-famous cave of Lascaux, which her adopted people subsequently paint.
THE LAND OF THE PAINTED CAVES (2002) In this three-part book, Ayla is 20 (in part 1), about 23 (in part 2) and 26 (in part 3) and is training to become a spiritual leader for the Zelandonii. Most of the first and second parts of the book involve Ayla's acolyte training to become Zelandoni. The third part of the book contains most of the action of the story and plot line.
In the first part, Ayla is at a Summer Meeting and she begins to learn what an acolyte does. Ayla and the First decide to start Ayla's Donier Tour - a tour of the sacred caves in the wider region. Jondalar, Jonayla, their animals and many others decide to travel. The second part is mainly about the caves they visit. In many of the Sacred caves the Ancients, the people before the Zelandonii, left drawings. Ayla meets many other Zelandoni and one of them gives her a pouch of dried herbs smelling faintly of mint. Ayla also discovers that the Clan visit some of the sacred caves as well.
In the third part of the book, Ayla is marking the passage of the sun and moon's phases as part of her training as an acolyte. One night she is distracted and decides to share Pleasures with Jondalar, starting a baby. However, most of her Cave leaves for the Summer Meeting, but Ayla stays behind until Midsummer so she can finish her observation of the celestial bodies. During this time she takes care of Marthona, her mother-in-law, as well as the others in her Cave. One night Ayla makes some mint tea, actually the dried herb mixture given to her in the second part of the book, and is Called. If an acolyte is Called, then she will be tested by the Zelandonia, and initiated into the Zelandonia if the Calling is true. Ayla puts down her drink and runs along a river into a cave, where she spends the next three days hallucinating. Wolf wakes her from her visions, and she finds herself in the dark cave. She allows Wolf to lead her out of the cave, but not before finding a bag hidden there by Madroman, an unskilled acolyte who faked his Calling, and who has had a deep-seated hatred of Jondalar since adolescence.
Outside are people from her Cave who were worried about her absence, and it is discovered that Ayla miscarried. She spends the next few days recovering from her experience and helps deliver a friend's baby. After delivering the baby, Ayla travels to the Summer Meeting. Upon her arrival, she finds Jondalar sharing Pleasures with Marona (Marona being Jondalar's bitter ex-girlfriend whom he abandoned to go travelling in the second book, and who actively and spitefully caused Ayla much difficultly when she first arrived at Jondalar's home). This leaves a rift between Ayla and Jondalar. She turns Madroman's bag over to the Zelandonia, and he is rejected from their ranks for his attempted deception. Ayla is accepted into the Zelandonia and attempts to use a dangerous hallucinogenic root as part of her initiation - one that was greatly feared by her first mentor, Mamut. The rift with Jondalar is only healed when he manages to call her back from the deathlike coma induced by the root.
The spiritual knowledge Ayla's Calling brings to the community is that men are active in the conception of a baby during 'Pleasures', which leads to the start of recognized fatherhood and that men have purpose on earth equal to that of women, and subsequently leads to the need for monogamous relationships to reduce jealousy/possessiveness over sexual partners and for fathers to take responsibility for children, thus shaping this prehistoric culture further to match our current one.