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産能短期大学紀要 創立50周年記念特別号
[Sanno Junior College Bulletin, 50th Anniversary Special Edition].
Tokyo, July 13, 2000, pp 203-209.


Prehistoric Fiction

Stephen Trussel

The success of Jean Auel's best-selling 1980 novel, Clan of the Cave Bear1 may be credited with starting a boom in the publication of "prehistoric fiction" – stories set in the far-distant past, featuring adventures of prehistoric humans.

Casting a broad net, some 500 or so English-language novels and stories2 can be found which can be included in this rough category, dating back to 1868. Of these, almost half have appeared in the past twenty years.3

This paper explores some of the salient characteristics of prehistoric fiction, and advances a system of classification.



The earliest examples of prehistoric fiction do not appear until the latter half of the 19th century, for, as stated in the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Anthropology in the 11th (1910) edition:

"Until the 19th century, man's first appearance on earth was treated on a historical basis as a matter of record... On the whole, the scheme of Archbishop Usher, who computed that the earth and man were created in 4004 BC, was the most popular... However... the first appearance of man ... is positively so remote, that an estimate between twenty and a hundred thousand years may fairly be taken as a minimum."

This was some fifty years after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). Although the likelihood of earlier forms of humans and animals was considered by the Classical Greek philosophers, the influence of the Judeo-Christian Bible was so strong, that until Darwin, it can safely be said that the concept "prehistoric man" had not existed in the Western world for nearly 2,000 years.

Even the words themselves appear to be relatively modern. The earliest English use of the term prehistoric, as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, is in the title of a book published in 1851, D. Wilson's 'The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland," in which he speaks of "the prehistoric races of Northern Europe."4

The earliest appearances

The earliest examples of prehistoric fiction come from France. Marc Angenot writes of the work of Pierre Boitard [1789?-1859], (1861, posthumous) Etudes antedeluviennes – Paris avant les hommes. L'Homme fossile. (Antedeluvian Studies: Paris before Man. Fossil man...), that it was "the first Darwinian narrative, and in it the pre-historical ape-man makes his appearance" ... "probably the first prehistoric novel."5

It is surprising that Jules Verne [1828-1905], a contemporary and prolific producer of the earliest science-fiction, is noticeably absent from the list of prehistoric authors. Mere hints of the genre appear in his 1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth, wherein during the fabulous journey the travelers discover a prehistoric version of the earth far beneath the earth's surface, and they briefly spy a giant keeping watch over a herd of mastodons, "His height was above twelve feet. His head, as big as the head of a buffalo, was lost in a mane of matted hair. It was indeed a huge mane, like those which belonged to the elephants of the earlier ages of the world. " The voyagers wisely decide to quickly depart the scene.

I.O. Evans suggests that as Verne was "a sincerely religious man, and followed faithfully the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, he naturally regarded the extremists of the Evolutionary School of thought with a certain scepticism...".6

It remained for J.-H. Rosny aîné to provide a significant early corpus of the genre. J.-H. Rosny is the joint pseudonym of the Belgian brothers Joseph-Henri-Honore Boëx [1856-1940], and Séraphin-Justin-François Boëx [1859-1948], known respectively as J.-H. Rosny aîné, and J.-H. Rosny jeune, who wrote in collaboration until 1909. J.-H. Rosny ainé was clearly the major writer: after their split, the younger brother produced little of note.

Jean-Baptiste Baronian, in the dustjacket blurb to his (1985) edition, Romans Prehistoriques: J.-H. Rosny Aîné writes,

J.-H. Rosny aîné, author of an extremely vast body of works, member of the Académie Goncourt since its foundation, and its president for numerous years, is incontestably the father of two modern literary genres: Science Fiction and the Prehistoric Novel. But while science fiction has developed widely in the 20th century, the prehistoric novel has attracted less attention, and in this area there is no author to be found to rival J.-H. Rosny Aîné.7

Following their 1888 story Les Xipehuz, (translated as "The Shapes"), a combination of prehistory, adventure and science fiction, their prehistoric novel, Vamireh, roman des temps primitifs (1892), is the first of a cycle of five. Eyrimah appeared in 1895, and Rosny's most famous work, La guerre du feu, roman des ages farouches [Quest for Fire] in 1911. Le Félin Géant [The Giant Cat] was published in 1920, and finally, Helgvor du fleuve Bleu in 1930.8 With the exception of "Quest for Fire," however, Rosny's work does not seem to be well-known by English-speaking readers.

In the last decade of the century, English stories begin to make their appearance, including a novel of prehistoric Pueblo Indians, The Delight Makers (1890) by Adolf Bandelier [1840-1914], and Stanley Waterloo [1846-1913]'s The Story of Ab: A Tale of the Time of the Caveman (1897). Waterloo's story was quite a success, went into numerous editions, and was adapted into a version for school children. Waterloo accused Jack London [1876-1916] of plagiarism in London's 1907 Before Adam, also a prehistoric novel. Both London and Waterloo produced additional examples of the genre, and by the turn of the century prehistoric fiction was appearing regularly, including children's literature.

Types of Prehistoric Novel

In his introduction to Romans Préhistoriques (1985) Jean-Baptiste Baronian distinguishes between "true" prehistoric novels, and what might be called "semi-prehistoric" novels. Basically, the pure prehistoric takes place completely in prehistory, and is told from the point of view of the characters of the time, like Rosny's Quest for Fire or Auel's Earth's Children series.

In 1981, Marc Angenot and Nadia Khouri, in their "International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction," explained the classificatory system used in its compilation.

"...these tales center around characters belonging to prehistory, and they relate events occurring in periods preceding recorded history, in those eras referred to collectively as the Stone Age, or those identified by the first paleontologists as the Age of the Reindeer, or that of the Mammoth..."

They discuss and list the sub-genre, "lost-world," in which, for example, "a crew of modern explorers discover a society of 'living fossils' in the center of the Earth, in a secluded valley, or an isolated plateau. The archetype here is The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle [1859-1930]."

A System of Classification

I currently find it convenient divide this literature into three types,

  1. Pure

    I call "Pure" those stories which occur nearly completely in prehistory, and do not involve any interaction between the past and the present (except for the case of a narrator or introductory device). Hillier's "Master-Girl", for example, is set as the dream of a contemporary paleontologist, and the narrator sometimes makes comparisons with present-day life. But the overwhelming bulk of the story is set completely in prehistory, and told from the point of view of the participants, so it can be considered "pure".

  2. Mixed

    The "Mixed" type consists of some parts which are pure, along with others which are not. For example, Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy" in its first appearance as a short story, told of bringing a Neanderthal child back to the present (actually, the future), and studying and interacting with him. This is what I call an "Anachronistic" type. But the adaptation into a novel by Robert Silverberg included the addition of "interchapters" in which appears the "concurrent" life of the Neanderthal tribe from which the child was taken. These chapters are "Pure" and so the final result is "Mixed," a modern setting with "flashbacks" to prehistoric episodes. Novels such as Sarum, which span from prehistory into the present day, sweeping across thousands of years, in a series of lives, I consider "Mixed" as well, containing pure prehistoric segments. Piers Anthony's Geodyssey trilogy is another example.

  3. Anachronistic

    By "Anachronistic" I refer to cross-time interaction of all sorts, including what are called the "Lost World" types, in which contemporary people discover a hidden world still in a prehistoric state. Examples include Rosny's 1920 story La Grande Enigme, (two modern adventurers discover a prehistoric valley hidden from the world by massive cliffs); Edison Marshall's Dian of the Lost Land, (modern investigators discover Cro-Magnon's preparing to battle Neanderthals in a remote area of Antarctica); and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 Lost World, (an English expedition discovers a Jurassic world in remote South America, complete with fierce dinosaurs and ape-men).

    Also "Anachronistic" are stories of time-traveling in the opposite direction, of prehistoric individuals who have somehow found their way into modern times, such as Michael Bishop's Ancient of Days, in which a Homo habilis man finds himself in a modern setting. Or Canter's Ember from the Sun, in which a Neanderthal embryo is implanted and born to a modern woman. Hanlon's Circle Home, in which a Neanderthal girl awakes in the body of a young American teenager is still another.

    Time-travel in its various science-fiction manifestations is clearly anachronistic; visiting spacemen coming down to prehistoric earth, as in James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Color of Neanderthal Eyes" or "The Apotheosis of Ki". In Cook, a modern Englishman out for a Sunday stroll is catapulted into life with Neanderthals some 40,000 years earlier. The story is the Englishman's view of life with the Neanderthalers, and does not attempt to present the prehistoric point of view. It that sense it is like a "lost world" story.

    On the other hand, time-travel, like other devices, may be used at the vehicle for setting the prehistoric segments, as in Poul Anderson's story, The Long Remembering, in which a graduate student volunteers to go back 20,000 years in time, and lives briefly as his Cro-Magnon ancestor of the Old Stone Age.

    Not so easy to categorize are humorous stories, which while ostensibly pure, do not pretend to capture the mentality of the primitive tribe, but invariably present the participants as modern people set into a prehistoric setting, such as Lesley Howarth's (1996) The Pits, a story told by a ghost about his version of the actual life of a 9,000-year-old "ice-man" discovered frozen on a mountaintop, or Roy Lewis's (1960) The evolution man; or, How I ate my father..


Prehistoric Fiction examines life in the Stone Age – pre-civilization, pre-agriculture, hunter-gatherer, cave-dweller, tree-dweller.... The writer attempts to create a believable or enlightening picture of prehistoric human life, and, hopefully, shed some light on our own.

We justifiably envision life in those far distant days as dangerous and unpredictable, and so the setting naturally leads to adventure. Fights with exotic prehistoric beasts, saber-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths, abound.

The various developments, discoveries, or inventions pivotal to human cultural development are naturally present, sometimes the core of the plot. •

  • Tools: stone-working technology, scrapers, axes, spear-points... •

  • Weapons: club, sling, spear, spear thrower, and, most notably, the bow and arrow. •

  • Hunting: for large prey - pit-building, cliff-driving •

  • Fire: fire-keeper, fire sticks, fire bow, fire stones •

  • Domestication: dog, horse, food animals •

  • Cave-painting: magic, shamanism, religion

Interaction of various "racial" groups, or more particularly, of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal tribes, is a major theme – The heroine of Auel's "Clan of the Cave Bear," Ayla, was a Cro-Magnon girl adopted by a Neanderthal tribe. Sir William Golding's "The Inheritors" is a tale of the dying out of the Neanderthalers, central to Bjorn Kurten's 1978 Dance of the Tiger as well. Golding is possibly the most successful in conveying a different type of thinking in the minds of the Neanderthalers.

A major setting distinction can be made between Ice-Age and non-Ice-Age, as a large percentage of the titles have frozen settings. Some, like Circles of Stone, Johannes Jensen's or Vardis Fisher's, go back as far as volcanic times. Reindeer, mammoths, polar bears... Numerous tales are set in the frozen north of various epochs.

Many of the recent novels focus on Native North Americans, often drawing heavily on recently anthropological discovery. In many cases the stories take place in what would be, in Europe, for example, historical times, but the cultures themselves have no recorded history. Where to draw the line between prehistoric and "modern" is often not clear.


The 20th century development of the literary genre "prehistoric fiction" blossomed in the last 20 years of the decade, during which several hundred examples were published. An analysis of this literature for categorization can use the presence of anthropological features as a grouping and classification technique.


Angenot, Marc, and Nadia Khouri. 1981. "An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction" in: Science-Fiction Studies #23 (Vol. 8, Part 1), March 1981.

Baronian, Jean-Baptiste. 1985. "Présentation" to his Romans Préhistoriques: J.-H. Rosny Aîné, Robert Lafont, Paris.

Chamberlain, Gordon A.. 1982. "The Angenot-Khouri Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction: Additions, Corrections, and Comment" in: Science-Fiction Studies #28 (Vol. 9, Part 3), Nov. 1982. Notes and Correspondence.

Evans, I.O. "Introduction" to (his translation of) Verne, Jules [1828-1905]. 1902. La grande forét, le village aerien. French. 234 pp, Paris. Hetzel. 1964. The Village in the Treetops. London. Arco Publications; Associated Booksellers. (NY: Associated Booksellers, 1964; Ace pbk H-67, 1968)

Pringle, David. "Introduction" to the 1999 Pulp Fictions (UK) edition of Henry Rider Harrard's "Allan and the Ice Gods" (1927).

Silverberg, Robert. "The Valley of Neander" in: Man Before Adam, 1964, and as Afterword to Silverberg, Robert [1935-], Martin H. Greenberg [1941-] and Charles G. Waugh, eds. 1987. Neanderthals: Isaac Asimov's Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #6. with an introduction by Isaac Asimov. New York. New American Library (Signet).

"Stableford, Brian. "Origin of Man" (article) in: John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds., The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. St. Martins Griffin edition, 1995.


1 Auel, Jean M.. 1980. The Clan of the Cave Bear. Crown, New York.

2 Trussel, Stephen. Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction

3 As further evidence of their recent popularity, the publication of Auel's third volume in her 4-volume series, The Mammoth Hunters (1985), was reported to have had a first printing of one million copies!

4 Similarly, the earliest citation for caveman is from 1865, in Lubbock's Prehistoric Times (x. 255) "These ancient Cave-men..." Another reference from the same year as Waterloo's 1897 prehistoric novel, The Story of Ab, is M. Kingsley, W. Africa (x. 208): 'These pots have a cave-man look about them; they are unglazed unlidded bowls." The Century Dictionary (1914) cites under caveman: Same as cave-dweller, with an undated quote from John Fiske (1842-1901) from Evolutionist (p. 45), "The bones and implements of the Cave-men are found in association with remains of the reindeer and bison, the arctic fox, the mammoth, and the wooly rhinocerous." The entry for cave-dweller is:

"One who dwells in a cave; a troglodyte; specifically, a member of the prehistoric race of men who dwelt in natural caves, subsisting on shell-fish and wild animals. Many of the caves which they inhabited contain their rude implements and sculptured drawings, together with animal and sometimes human bones, in superimposed layers, separated by limestone or other deposits."

accompanied by this citation from Science III, 489: "Our knowledge of primitive man in Europe, during the Paleolithic age, is mainly confined to what has been learned in regard to the life and habits of the so- called cave-dwellers."

5 in "Science Fiction in France Before Verne," Science Fiction Studies no. 14 [Vol. 5, Part 11, March 1978.

6 Introduction to Verne's 1902 La grande forét, le village aerien, in which African explorers encounter a race of ape-like men living in the trees.

7 my translation

8 Jean Jacques Annaud's highly acclaimed film, La guerre du feu, "Quest for Fire," appeared in 1981, contributing to, or riding on the crest of, the new prehistoric wave. (First US publication of the translation of the novel was in 1967.) Le Félinn Géantt (The Giant Cat) was translated (by Lady Whitehead) as " Quest of the Dawn Man" in 1924 (UK), and the introduction states that it ran to 40 editions in France.

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