When many people read ‘Ancient History’ they think of the Romans, the Greeks, or perhaps the Aztecs. Well, these 20 books will help to shed light on an overlooked period of history that incorporates extinct species and underdeveloped humans as they all participate in the fight to stay alive.
The prehistoric period can often tell stories of dinosaurs and terrifying birds, reptiles, and mammals. But the period predominantly refers to the origins of human development. It tells of homo-sapiens and other ‘homo’ species that have contributed to the advancement of humans as we know them today. It covers their use of tools, weapons, and surrounding animals and sheds light on animalistic human traits that are still very relevant today.
This all sounds very scientific, right? Well, don’t let that put you off. Although it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the prehistoric period in order to understand these stories and their settings, these books are fictionalized and dramatized and will not be the info-packed, textbook type of book you may be expecting.
Jean M. Auel’s novel The Clan of the Cave Bear follows a 5-year-old Cro-Magnon (early modern human species found in Europe). Her name is Ayla and she is orphaned after both of her parents die in an earthquake.
Alone and frightened, Ayla is found by the medicinal leader of a Neanderthal clan and this is her story of integration.
This story delves into the interesting differences between prehistoric human species and sheds light on the kind of life they would have led. It is factually accurate and proves to be an educational and entertaining read.
The prehistoric period is often neglected in favor of other action-packed and dramatic ancient periods that follow but it provides an excellent setting for an intense, violent, and emotive book.
Here are 20 excellent historical fiction books that will help you to understand why this period is important, fascinating, and worth a little more attention.
The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace
Set in a small coastal village at the beginning of the Bronze Age (3300-1200 B.C.), this story follows a community that is skilled in the field of stonework. They survive on their craft and their comradery and are happy living their insular, basic lives.
A young boy, however, decides there is more out there to see and ventures out to explore the unknown. He comes back with adventurous tales of ships, animals, and other communities, and brings one message, one that will influence the lives of the entire community. The world is changing and they must change with it.
The Gift of Stones is a brilliant story that merges real historic societal development with a classic human attribute that remains prevalent today – stubbornness.
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
Set in prehistoric Scotland, The Gathering Night is a gripping, psychological, and romantic novel that illuminates the harsh realities of the Mesolithic period and follows the complex mentality and experiences of Alaia and her family.
After Alaia’s brother goes missing whilst out hunting, their family is thrown into a whirlwind of grief and despair. This novel mixes tropes seen in modern murder mysteries and crime fiction with the intense and stark setting of hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
Sweet Muse of Madness by Anthony Giarmo
This is a spiritual masterpiece that merges the ideologies of those who worship Nature and those who worship the God of Judgment.
Set in pre-Bronze-Age Greece, Sweet Muse of Madness is an insightful and gripping story of devotion, responsibility, and rituals. It sheds light on the origins of modern religion and goes into great depth about the lifestyles and realities of living in a society dominated by spirituality and religion in an era where so little information was available.
The Inheritors by William Golding
Best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, which has since become a modern classic, Golding brings a completely different story with a whole new vision and basis.
The Inheritors is a fantastically written novel that brings to life the prehistoric era, following a group of Neanderthals. The novel highlights how these individuals are both similar and completely different from our own human species.
It delves into their lifestyles, rituals, and survival techniques which all differ from the modern human but also emphasizes their emotional strength and habits, which mirror ours. Set in a period of intense change, this novel follows interactions, relationships, conflict, and survival strategies as they fight to maintain their kind.
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
Merging age-old myth with dangerous adventure, Wolf Brother follows 12-year-old Torak who is tasked with stopping a violent bear that has consumed the spirit of an evil demon.
He must undergo a series of tasks and take on numerous journeys in order to stop the demon before it destroys his community of hunter-gatherers, just like it murdered Torak’s father.
Mother Earth Father Sky by Sue Harrison
This brilliant novel blends fantasy, adventure, and prehistoric fiction, creating the ultimate female-led journey.
Mother Earth Father Sky follows Chagak, a young girl grappling with the changes of womanhood. Her tribe is massacred and only she survives but her survival sets her on a long, treacherous journey across America’s northwest coastline. On the run, scared, and riddled with personal struggles, Chagak unearths the powers that lie within her and within her land and discovers the secrets of the earth and the sky along the way.
Secrets of the Ancient Goddess by Brenda Gates Smith
Set in the Neolithic period in what we now know as Turkey, Secrets of the Ancient Goddess follows two prehistoric women that were once part of a cult, driven by the Great Goddess. One is banished, thought to bring bad luck and the other was captured and this is their story.
They go on a long, dangerous journey and must do everything in their power to regain their spot in the community they love.
The People of the Lakes by Kathleen O’Neal Gear
This is one of the 26 books that make up Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s epic saga that uncovers America’s forgotten history. As many books hone in on Civil Wars, World Wars, the economic depravity and civil unrest that make up so much of America’s rich history, the Gears travel right back to prehistoric times to unearth the events and lifestyles of the periods that are key to human development.
People of the Lakes is set in what is now Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. This story concentrates on myth and belief and follows the journey made by a clan that is fighting new, destructive powers.
The Year the Horses Came by Mary Mackey
This is the first in the Earthsong trilogy that focuses on a group of wandering nomads who move their lives to Europe. This place is rich with spirituality and religion and goddess worshiping is central to their culture.
The Year the Horses Came is jam-packed with accuracy and intelligent insight, perfect for the reader seeking education. Its descriptions are vivid and its plot lines are engaging, it is the perfect trilogy for any prehistoric lover.
Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst
This is the first in the Wolf Chronicles trilogy that entices readers with complex and endearing characters, fast-paced storytelling, and historical accuracy. The Promise of Wolves is set 14,000 years ago in Europe and follows an outcast wolf, Kaala, who struggles to fit into her pack because she is of mixed blood.
A war between humans and wolves is looming again, Kaala finds herself in charge of monitoring human activity to prevent them from neglecting nature and putting the world in danger.
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson
This prehistoric novel is written by science-fiction genius Kim Stanley Robinson, who is typically known for his futuristic and gripping novels.
Shaman, however, is the complete opposite. Set in the Ice Age, the novel follows an early European tribe of humans who undergo a period of change and must learn how to survive, developing new skills and techniques to protect their kind.
This is a powerful story that closely follows human developmental stages. It is heartbreaking, fast-paced, and insightful, a recommended read for anyone!
Silverhair by Stephen Baxter
This is the first in a trilogy that centers around mammoths, one of the greatest and most well-known extinct species that thrived across the globe throughout many of the great prehistoric disasters.
If you’re expecting a story like Ice Age that follows an endearing, lovable mammoth, you may want to look elsewhere. Silverhair is a gritty, accurate insight into the lives and habits of mammoths. It follows one pack of mammoths as they struggle to survive and outrun a new danger – human hunting.
Dance of the Tiger by Bjorn Kurten
This is one of the most popular prehistoric novels that provides insight into the real lives of those who survived 35,000 years ago. Set in Western Europe, Kurten provides a vivid and engrossing account of our oldest ancestors.
The Dance of the Tiger brilliantly delves into the habits, experiences, and dangers endured by the earliest humans. By using real drawings and artifacts found from the time, he constructs a beautifully insightful novel guaranteed to change your perspective on the prehistoric era.
Beyond the Sea of Ice by William Sarabande
The first in the First Americans saga, Beyond the Sea of Ice, is a fascinating story that provides an interesting account of the natural danger and disasters that early humans endured. Without the advanced technology that can warn us of natural danger, this story allows the reader to better understand the scale of prehistoric natural disasters and their consequences.
The story follows Torka, a hunter whose family was murdered by a dangerous mammoth, who endures disaster after disaster and must lead the remaining survivors to safety elsewhere.
Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell
Cornwell is one of the most well-known historical fiction writers, so rest assured you’re safe in his literary hands!
Stonehenge follows the ambition, dedication, and rivalry between three brothers who are determined to build a temple for their gods. In a prehistoric society where power and influence mean everything, there are no limits to what these brothers will do to obtain power for themselves.
Atlantis by David Gibbins
This suggestion is a little different but it’s perfect for history and fantasy lovers. It follows Jack Howard, a modern marine archaeologist as he discovers clues to unlock crucial information about the famous underwater realm that dominated many classic stories.
He and his team of scientific and archaeological experts expose the harsh truth behind this mythical land and unearth a secret that could have devastating impacts on modern society.
Atlantis dives into the lifestyles and experiences of those who lived in these times but also creates a brilliant juxtaposition, flicking between scenes of prehistoric life and modern advancement.
Song of the Axe by John R. Dann
This suggestion is perhaps the most similar to Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. It covers myth, history, and survival creating one of the most amazing visions of prehistoric life.
Song of the Axe follows Agon and Eena, two lovers who existed 30,000 years ago. These two characters defy expectations and live through extraordinary experiences, as the world reaches the end of its Ice Age and moves into another era.
Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Set in Siberia over 20,000 years ago, Reindeer Moon follows Yanan, a brave young girl who lives through harsh conditions and struggles to survive with the rest of her community. As hunters and gatherers, their lives depend on animals and shelter but when times get hard, there’s no other option but to turn on each other.
This novel beautifully reflects prehistoric life, it is a story of struggle, hardship, and death, so not for the faint-hearted.
The Horse Goddess by Morgan Llywelyn
This is the first in a series of Celtic stories that follow a changing world, one that blends fantasy, myth, and reality.
Set after the prehistoric period, during the turmoil of Troy and Athens, The Horse Goddess hones in on Epona, a woman with a great destiny that forces her to journey across Europe. Her stories of love, adventure, and danger are captivating and will provide insight into the lifestyles and experiences of those who lived during this era.
White Mare’s Daughter by Judith Tarr
Descended from a long line of warrior tribes, Sarama realizes she is the heir to an ancient world, one that holds different traditions, expectations, and ways of life than anything she’s grown up with.
She follows her calling and discovers a land ruled by women, one she comes to love. So when war breaks out between her new land and her old, she must choose where her allegiance lies and fight to protect it. White Mare’s Daughter is a brilliant book that merges ancient myth with the realities of ancient conflict. A great read for many.
If you’re intrigued by the prehistoric period or want to learn more about where the human species started and how it developed, these are brilliant books that give you great insight without veering into the textbook territory. They are all fun, interesting, and gripping reads that will provide you with a new perspective and perhaps teach you a thing or two about a period that is often overshadowed.
Frequently Asked Questions
When was the prehistoric period?
It generally encapsulates everything that happened between 2.5 million years ago and 1,200 B.C.
What is the difference between the prehistoric period and the Stone Age?
The Stone Age is one of the three sub-periods held within the overarching ‘prehistoric’ period. The prehistoric era is categorized into three ages: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.
Why is it important to learn about the prehistoric period?
Learning about where humans originated and their journey through modernization can teach you a lot about the modern human species. It can teach you more about racial differences – how each type of human differed based on geographical location – and the biological origins of human beings (many of which are still relevant now).
How many books has Jean M. Auel written?
She has written 9 books, 6 of which come under her Earth’s Children series, which incorporates The Clan of the Cave Bear.
What is the best prehistoric fiction book?
The Clan of the Cave Bear is very high on the list, alongside Golding’s The Inheritors.