It was the end of the era of the saber-tooth tigers, and the beginning of a new era of tools for Man.
Each day Dar was the clan’s morning fire starter, using his Flint and a Sunstone striker. The task gave him time alone to think, and to practice carving which his gruff & intolerant Uncle Kernok considered to be a waste of time.
Dar’s initiation into manhood would come soon and his Uncle (& guardian) was not at all sure he would pass the test. Being of small stature Dar was insecure of his ability to be a great hunter, as was powerful Kernok.
When Dar meets a stranger with a wonderful spear-throwing tool, carved from an antler. Dar knew it would give him an advantage over the other hunters, but he could not bear to trade his Flint and Sunstone for it. The stranger traced a map in the sand, showing where he had come from, and they parted ways.
After Dar’s initiation ceremony, he was free to leave the village as he pleased. He resolves that he will trade his Sunstone* for that spear thrower. After a harrowing journey to a distant and perhaps dangerous clan, he finds far more than he expected. He sees tools and learns practices that will improve the lives of his clan. His providing them with his Flint & Striker, demonstrates the value of mutual trade to mutual benefit… both sides gain, increasing overall wealth. (Thus wealth is created, & not a fixed pie.)
Amazingly, the man who demonstrates the great values that carving can produce, teaches Dar more about his family than even his own Uncle and Grandmother knew.
There is a slight contradiction between the plot and a written message near the end of the story. Throughout we see Dar choosing his own values, and becoming independent of the authority of his clan. However, near the end we see him returning to his clan to live in their service (not because of the benefit of cooperative effort). On p100 Dar reports that his clan’s shaman taught him he had come into manhood “to serve the clan not ourselves.” Dar appears to be choosing to subordinate his independence to his clan.
Though this was most certainly a natural part of growing up in tribal (collectivist) societies, it is a message young readers should not internalize. Cowley does mitigate the notion somewhat, through Justice: —Dar expresses a reasoned sense of gratitude and responsibility to his Grandmother and his clan for the support they gave him. He has even learned that Kernok’s roughness had a tragic cause he could perhaps repair.
The story is written so clearly and plainly that you feel as if you are right there with Dar, not only in the events but in his thoughts, hopes and doubts. We experience Dar’s struggle to stay true to his own values rather than his Uncle’s, as he experiences fears and setbacks. At each step we are pleased to see Dar make quick and wise decisions that help him achieve his goals. Yes, a saber-tooth tiger plays a surprising role that brings Dar closer to his Uncle. More importantly it teaches young readers that mystical fear is no way to approach Nature and Life.
* Sunstone, is a harder-than-flint feldspar. The only deposit known to Cro-Magnon man was in Norway, yet it has been found in archeological digs across Europe. It was surely a valuable trade item.