No one knows, of course, who among the many fiction writers who have tackled life in the darker reaches of prehistory has got closest to imagining life as it really was then. Short of an invention of a practical time machine, no one ever will.
But it’s a fascinating game. The most successful by far, in terms of sales anyway, has been Jean Auel with her Earth’s Children series. They are appallingly badly written – the sex scenes are particularly excruciating – and hideously overlong, but they are clearly based on extensive research and their imagining of the Neanderthal mind in particular, and the creative exploration of its possible interaction with the earliest of our own kind, grasp, this reader senses, some faint glimmering of truth. Not to mention the fact she has created one of the great adventure heroines of popular literature.
Margaret Elphinstone, in her new The Gathering Night, has created a small tribe of hunter-gatherers living comfortably enough beside a sub-Arctic sea feasting on the riches of that and a still fertile land – split in certain seasons into small family groups and in others gathering in one difficult, turbulent group.
Her core group, who take it in turns to tell the tale, are a family riven by the sudden, inexplicable loss of a healthy young hunter. His mother, unable to come to terms with this, is gradually taking the path of becoming a Go-Between, a shaman, shocking because females in this role, forbidden access to the vital hunting magic, are rare and disturbing.
There’s challenge and danger too in inexplicably changing seasons, which are making game scarcer, and in the arrival of strangers, swept in the detritus of a tidal wave that wiped out most of their people.
Elphinstone’s jacket writers have done her no favours in trying to make comparison with the pinch humankind now finds itself in: one small, simple tribal society, whose problems are quite discrete and indeed solvable, are no model for a six-billion-strong world.