After an unsuccessful attempt to pull her mother up from a recent earthquake, 5-year-old Cro-Magnon Ayla (Emma Floria) is left alone in the woods with a severe injury on her legs from a nearby cave lion; having been suffering from starvation, exhaustion, and infection of her wounds, she collapses, on the verge of death. Eventually, she was rescued by Iza (Pamela Reed), the healer of a group of Neanderthals who call themselves "The Clan", from being eaten alive by vultures against the orders for her to be left alone to die by the clan's chief, Brun (John Doolittle), just because she is clearly a member of "the Others", the distrusted antagonists of the Clan. Brun refuses to accept Ayla as his new daughter when Iza adopts her, only allowing her to stay with the Clan because Iza refuses to abandon her, and with that done, the Clan calls her "Ayla", the closest they can come to pronouncing her birth name.
Through meditation, Iza's brother, Creb (the group's shaman), comes to believe that the child may be protected by the spirit of the cave lion, a powerful "totem" that is never given to a woman and only very few men. He cites the cave lion attack the girl experienced shortly before being discovered as proof that its spirit marked her so that she could be adopted into the Clan. After traveling with them for a while and starting to heal, Ayla wanders away from the group when they stop to discuss what they should do since they have not found a new home and she discovers a huge, beautiful cave, perfect for their needs; many of the people begin to regard Ayla as lucky, especially since good fortune continues to come their way as they begin to accept her in the fold.
Ayla's different thought processes lead her to break important Clan customs, particularly the taboo against females handling weapons. She is self-willed and spirited, but tries hard to fit in with the Neanderthals, although she has to learn everything first-hand; she does not possess the ancestral memories of the Clan which enable them to do certain tasks after being shown only once.
Iza trains Ayla as a medicine woman "of her line", the most prestigious line of medicine women out of all of the Clans. It takes her much longer to train Ayla than it will her own daughter, Uba (Lycia Naff), since Ayla does not possess the memories of the Clan. Iza is concerned that when Ayla grows up nobody will want her as their mate, making her a burden to the Clan. So she trains Ayla to be a highly respected medicine woman who will have her own "status" and will not have to rely on the status of a mate.
Meanwhile, Broud (Joey Cramer), the son of Brun, disdains and shuns Ayla at every turn during her childhood, and when they both reach adulthood, Broud (Thomas G. Waites) brutally rapes Ayla (Daryl Hannah) in an impulsive bid to demonstrate his control over her. Broud continues to assault Ayla multiple times daily leaving her despondent, and she soon becomes pregnant. Iza explains to Ayla that her unusual appearance compared to the rest of the Clan will likely preclude her from obtaining a mate before she gives birth, a circumstance Iza's people believe will bring bad luck to their settlement. Ayla, having dreamed of being a mother for most of her life and now convinced that this may be her only chance due to her powerful totem, refuses Iza's suggestion that she take medicine to lose the child. Following a difficult pregnancy and a near-fatal labor, Ayla rejoices in the birth of a son but, due to his appearance being an amalgamation of Clan and Other features, he is considered deformed and almost taken away from her.
After Iza's death, Broud is named chief by Brun. Broud's first order is to take Ayla for himself and separate her from her son, giving him to another couple, and he also exiles the already elderly Creb as there's another shaman in charge. Ayla opposes and fights Broud, defeating him. Thus a humiliated Broud agrees to keep Creb with the clan, but Ayla still chooses to leave, saying goodbye to her son, in search of her own people.
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