This book starts off from the events at the end of The Valley of Horses. The main protagonists, a young woman named Ayla and a man named Jondalar, meet a group known as the Mamutoi, or Mammoth Hunters, with whom they live for a period of time. As their name would suggest, 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. Mamut is also one of the first to become aware of Ayla's unique upbringing, as many years ago he was saved by the medicine woman of the same clan that brought her up (the grandmother of Ayla's adoptive mother Iza) as he broke his arm while on his Journey. He learned some of the Clan sign language during that stay, and became aware of the fact that the Clan are human (not animals, as is the common opinion of most of his people).
Also within the Lion Camp is a boy of six named Rydag who is half Clan and half Others. 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 memories. Ayla quickly discovers this and teaches him, and the rest of the Lion Camp, the Clan way of communicating. Rydag is a sickly child, having a heart defect which limits him from even playing like the other children of the Camp. He is the subject of prejudice from many other Mamutoi, who regard him as an animal, but Ayla and the Lion Camp are vehement in their defense of him. He is a special friend of Mamut, who never treated him as any different from the other children "except to show special consideration for his weakness". Rydag's intelligence, maturity and wit endear him to Jondalar as well, who learns to overcome his cultural prejdice 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, in that Ayla's susceptibility to being deceived or confused, caused by her upbringing among essentially honest people, leads the more complicated, obstinate, and passionate Jondalar to make multiple errors. The conflict in question is a love triangle between Jondalar, Ayla, and Lion Camp member Ranec, a unique fellow in that his father (master flint knapper Wymez) traveled far to the south and mated a woman whose skin was as black as night, resulting in a brown-skinned son. Jondalar becomes jealous and is easily pushed away; Ayla almost mates with Ranec before several last-minute revelations reunite the former pair.
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