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The Controversies of Prehistoric Fiction

The realistic representation of prehistoric fiction is an important debate which is still ongoing. The relationship between the writer and their fiction is one which contains many possibilities, as creativity is a free space to do what a writer wishes. However, the controversies regarding how best to represent prehistory in writing are still in contention. To begin, however, a quote is needed to put this debate into a necessary context. Ruth M. Van Dyke brings up an interesting point in Subjects and Narrative in Archaeology: “…Far better for archaeologists to direct this work than to leave to filmmakers, novelists, or other avocationalists whose enthusiasm may be great, but whose engagement with the empirical data is necessarily shallow” (Van Dyke, 2015, p. 94).

Van Dyke states here that most palaeontologists/archaeologists view the majority of prehistoric fiction as unqualified and uneducated attempts to represent prehistory. In fact, she goes as far as to say that writing prehistoric narratives should be a job purely for the experts who know and/or understand the most about the ideas that are present. This article will address these concerns by examining some of the main controversial elements within already existing prehistoric fiction. This will be done by examining the effects of speculative fiction and the influence of outer sociopolitical matters on the genre itself. It will also seek to establish a balance between scientific accuracy and creative interpretation. In exploring these two ideas further, this article will be using Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) and Chad Oliver’s Mists of Dawn (1952) as case studies. Furthermore, with delving in this discussion, prehistory is defined as the age when modern homo sapiens first came into existence 300,000 years ago. This places the basis for this article well within the Pleistocene epoch, more famously known as the Ice Age. Prehistory is a very large expanse of time, one which covers billions of years of life on earth but since most of the works of prehistoric fiction take place from the perspective of early humans, this article will stick to the representation of these peoples.

Figure 1: Prehistoric Mammals of the Pleistocene Epoch (Anton, 2008).
On the Matter of Speculative Fiction

The elements of Speculative Fiction within Prehistoric Fiction are one point of contention within the debate. These speculative elements, researchers say, misrepresent the cultures of prehistoric peoples by theorising about what ‘may’ have happened in their lives instead of what 'did.' This speculative take on the cultures of prehistoric peoples is further elaborated upon by Nicholas Ruddick in Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel: “It provides speculative scenarios of hominization, namely, the evolutionary process that made us the kind of species that we are” (Ruddick, 2009, p. 3).

These speculative ideas, as Ruddick points out, surround the theory behind the evolution of humanity and their closest mammalian relatives. Therefore, writers of Prehistoric Fiction use these speculative scenarios to explore the evolutionary progress of humanity in ways which may pertain to a more fictionalised telling of prehistory rather than anything remotely accurate. This issue is key to the debate, as it opens questions into how prehistoric peoples and therefore, how prehistory in general should be represented in fiction.

Figure 2: The Evolution of Humanity (Britannica, 2023).

Speculative elements like these can be seen in Chad Oliver’s Mists of Dawn. This novel is about a teenager called Mark Nye, who explores the Pleistocene (2 million-11,700 years ago). Mark, after having travelled back in time by using his uncle’s time machine, goes on to meet and assimilate himself within a tribe of Cro-Magnon people. These people allow Mark entry into their tribe upon the killing of a mammoth, to which Mark nervously agrees. The novel then further explores this speculative idea of modern humans meeting ancient Cro-Magnons, as well as what they would do, through the perspective of a third-person narrator.

Mark’s assimilation within the Cro-Magnon tribe happens swiftly, and they do not attempt to challenge his presence. Chad Oliver does address language boundaries and differences in culture, which all rely on the use of speculative fiction as no contemporary human being (that is, people who live in the 20th century, which is the time Mark is from) has ever met a Cro-Magnon man. Therefore, Mark’s incredibly swift adaptation to his environment and the interesting ways he confronts certain obstacles could be seen as unrealistic, since it takes very little time for Mark to do so. The following quote from the novel is an example of Mark's simplified adaptation to the Cro-Magnon tribe: "He had no place to go, and knew that he could not last long alone in this strange world. His future was here with these people, or else he had no future at all" (Oliver, 1952, pp. 115-116).

Mark is in a completely new environment, with a tribe of peoples he has never met before right in front of him. There should be difficulty in adapting and comprehending much of what he is seeing, yet Mark adapts to it like it is an easy task. There are numerous examples of what would normally be incredibly distressing situations, yet Mark overcomes them with a surprising amount of efficiency. It can easily be seen then why researchers are concerned about texts like Mists of Dawn, since speculative texts can change the way people see the prehistoric world. These texts exist to play a role in teaching the public about how to envision prehistory and prehistoric cultures. Henceforth, they have a responsibility of academic transparency to uphold. This transparency is important, as it allows the public to view historical information in a trustworthy and reliable way.

Figure 3: Cro-Magnons painting Mammoths on Cave Walls (Knight, 1920).

However, while conversations surrounding this may be important, it is also important to note that these speculative elements are principal for the purpose for which most works of fiction are written. This purpose is to entertain and for the author, it is beneficial for the exploration of the genre they are writing in. In prehistoric fiction then, these speculative tropes can be utilised in order to explore the possibilities of what prehistory could have looked and felt like. Whilst this may take the form of a well-researched piece of work, the world of fiction also needs to be flexible enough for that narrative to be entertaining to the general public. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that while historical accuracy is vital, creative freedom is also. Experts, however, look upon more than just the speculative elements of a piece of prehistoric fiction. When writing a piece of work, writers often want to push certain ideas through a narrative. These ideas, which may originate from their personal beliefs or as a reflection upon the world at large, have found their way into prehistoric fiction. This is what the next part of this article will be about.

The "Politicisation" of Prehistory

Being a sub-genre of science fiction, prehistoric fiction explores beyond prehistory and the lives of those who lived it. In quite a few cases, there is a political/moral/social component to a lot of science fiction, as the narratives often follow the ethics/morals of certain scientific phenomena, from technology to medicine. A good example of this at work is shown in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) which explores the negative and possibly catastrophic effects of an overwhelmingly capitalistic mindset. Prehistoric fiction does this as well, as authors often seek to deliver certain messages throughout the pieces of work that they write. The author can do this for a myriad of reasons, but it is by no means less controversial to experts in the field. Nadia Khouri and Marc Angenot point this out in An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction:

By this, we mean that a genre is not only a set of immanent literary features, but also a selective machine which attracts, distorts, magnifies, rejects and amalgamates a number of ideological vectors disseminated across the wide expanse of social discourse (Angenot & Khouri, 1981, p. 39).

Figure 4: Science Fiction Tropes (Lacey, 2020).

Angenot and Khouri state here that genres are not just key elements of literature, but they also seek to explore the effects that one could push in a narrative. They do this by attracting, distorting, magnifying, rejecting, and amalgamating political/moral/social influences within the narrative. In doing such, the narrative can then be seen through an ideological lens. Jean M. Auel, the author of Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), does this in her work. Taking place in the Pleistocene, Clan of the Cave Bear itself is about a young Homo Sapiens girl named Ayla, who is orphaned at the beginning of the book after her parents are crushed in a landslide. She is soon encountered and taken in by a group of Neanderthals who are looking for a new cave to make their home. As Ayla grows up as a member of this tribe, she begins to start directly challenging the rules which her clan elders raised her to follow. As she does so, she also finds herself challenging the clan’s patriarchal leadership in the process, something that does not go unnoticed.

In one of these instances, Ayla wields a slingshot. Slingshots, in the clan’s laws, are classified as weapons and thus, Ayla was not allowed to brandish one since women in the tribe are banned from wielding anything which could be considered a weapon. The political elements of this are featured in the following quote after Ayla kills a porcupine: "The porcupine made her realise how impossible such a daydream was. She could never bring back a kill and have her prowess recognised. She was female, and females of the Clan did not hunt" (Auel, 1980, p. 185).

Figure 5: An Adult Neanderthal male and a female Neanderthal Child (Bjorklund, 2022).

There are numerous instances like these that take place in Clan of the Cave Bear, all of which revolve around Ayla challenging a very traditional patriarchal system. This leads to the clan’s system becoming more flexible. At the end of her banishment, Ayla is given by Brun, the leader of the clan, permission to wield a slingshot and only a slingshot. Another example of this is where Ayla slowly gets used to using a slingshot. In her practicing, she uses it against very dangerous predators, putting her life at risk as a result. She would then go onto kill more predators, one-upping the men of the tribe in the process who usually only kill herbivores as a source for food. This emasculates them, which is what results in Ayla's temporary banishment from the tribe. This means that Ayla, a woman, dares to challenge and indirectly question the patriarchal system, resulting in the men acting misogynistically towards her.

These political influences connote female empowerment, which is at the heart of the novel. It is because of politicisation like this that also has researchers concerned about the realistic representation of prehistoric peoples. These political influences also exist as catalysts of speculative fiction, which propel questions about what could have happened in prehistory itself. Is it correct for those who have not studied prehistory to be writing narratives about it? Are those who are already writing prehistoric fiction trustworthy enough to be writing anything about prehistory?

Figure 6: The umbrella term of Speculative Fiction (University High School, 2022).

There are dangers to writing prehistoric fiction if the writer is approaching it with a politicised perspective. This connects to a point made in the prior argument on speculative fiction, where the representation of prehistory could be written through a political lens and therefore be viewed in a different way by audiences who read them. These aspects could change how people view ancient human societies, so there is certainly a level of responsibility for writers to uphold here.

There are, however, certain aspects behind the writings of such fiction that cannot be easily ignored. The politicisation of prehistory allows for questions that palaeontologists and archaeologists have asked before to have potential answers. These questions pertain to how their primitive political/societal systems worked, how gender roles within ancient tribes functioned, and how the hierarchy within said tribes worked. A lot of it is a creative interpretation of these important prehistorical and scientific questions. Ideas like this may be unreliable as it is dependent on who is writing the work itself and the facts available to the writer from the fossil record, but it does not have to necessarily represent prehistoric fiction as a source of uneducated bias. Fiction is how the author shapes it. This will, henceforth, allow us to explore the knowledge that prehistoric fiction authors should have when writing material like this.

Figure 7: A Room in a Museum with Fossils (Gaudry, 1888).

Balancing Fact and Fiction

Writing a piece of prehistoric fiction is not a simple task. Much like the wider world of science fiction, it requires extensive attention to detail with themes such as worldbuilding playing very important roles in the story world. This also makes prehistoric fiction much different from the rest of the science fiction world as its tropes do not usually match with the rest of the genre. Therefore, scientific accuracy can be very important in the development of prehistoric fiction. Authors of prehistoric fiction do not always wish to explore a factual prehistoric past. That should not stop them from learning as much about it as possible, however. This sentiment is made clear by Joshua Mostafa in In Search of Lost Time: Archaeology, and the Elusive Subject of Prehistory: “Our knowledge of prehistoric life is inevitably riven by gaps, uncertainties and ambiguity, but it is by no means a void of ignorance” (Mostafa, 2019, p. 84).

What Mostafa is saying here is that our mindset, both cultural and academic, is not always going to be perfect regarding prehistory. Even palaeontologists and archaeologists are still discovering more about it, a lot of which might render most pieces of prehistoric fiction moot, depending on what those future discoveries might say about the fossil record. Therefore, authors of said prehistoric fiction are still discovering as much as the experts are. Henceforth, when it comes to writing prehistoric fiction, sometimes authors may need to make educated guesses about it. Although experts do not like how authors approach this task, answering these difficult questions is an inevitability when it comes to writing material like this. We cannot definitively answer all the questions about how prehistoric men may have lived. What authors can do, however, is to make sure that they are as educated as possible on these subject matters. These authors should understand and be well-informed about their research and how they choose to present that research through a fictionalised perspective.

Figure 8: A depiction of an Elasmotherium in Caverne Pont d'Arc in France (Inocybe, 2006).

In conclusion, experts are rightfully concerned about the representation of prehistoric people in prehistoric fiction. The choices which authors make surrounding the speculative elements of their work should be considered with scientific and prehistorical accuracy in mind. This, however, is dependent on what the author seeks to do in terms of the speculative themes found within the novel itself. The more speculative the narrative gets, the less realistic it becomes. Therefore, although some knowledge about prehistory should be expressed in a work of prehistoric fiction, it does not necessarily have to represent that in a strict, realistic sense.

Overall, there is a certain leeway when it comes to the ethics of representing prehistory. Writers should reach a balance between speculation and realistic representation that suits their individual writing wants and needs. This is important, but not vital since writers should also embrace the creative freedom that comes from writing. Therefore, although researchers can press the importance of research and accuracy, they cannot dictate the accuracy of what prehistoric fiction writers choose to write. They also cannot dictate what writers choose to write in general. A fair balance between fact and fiction is the best way to remedy this, although the contention between research-based and speculative-based prehistoric fiction will always remain debated.

Bibliographical References

Angenot, M., Khouri, N. (1981). An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction. Science Fiction Studies. 8(1), p.39. Retrieved July 28, 2023 from

Auel, J.M. (1980). Clan of the Cave Bear. New York City, New York, USA: Crown Publishing Group.

Crichton, M. (1990). Jurassic Park. New York City, New York, USA: Alfred Knopf.

Mostafa, J. (2019). In Search of Lost Time: Fiction, Archeaology and the Elusive Subject of Prehistory, in Australian Humanities Review: Vol: 65. pp. 69-88. Retrieved July 29, 2023 from

Oliver, C. (1952). Mists of Dawn. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: The John C. Winston Company.

Ruddick, N. (2009). Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel. Middletown, Connecticut, USA: Wesleyan University Press.

Van Dyke, R.M., Bernbeck, R. (2015). Subjects and Narratives in Archaeology. University Press of Colorado. Retrieved August 2, 2023 from

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Callum Furnival

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