Jean Marie Untinen was born on February 18, 1936 in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. She was the second of five children. Her father was a house painter, Neil Solomon Untinen, and her mother Martha Wirtanen.
After high school, Jean M. married Ray Bernard Auel (surname pronounced like "owl"). The Auels moved to Portland, Oregon, where Jean M. raised her five children.
In 1964, Jean M. became a member of Mensa. She attended night school while working: she worked as a clerk (1965–1966), a circuit board designer (1966–1973), technical writer (1973–1974), and a credit manager at Tektronix (1974–1976). In 1976, she earned her M.B.A. at Portland State University; since then she has received honorary degrees from the University of Maine and Mount Vernon College for Women.
Three months after graduation, Jean M. still hadn't found a new job that suited her. About that time she got an idea for a short story about a prehistoric girl. She says, "The 'short story' led me to do some research; the research fired my imagination, and the wealth of material made me decide to write a novel. The first draft turned out to be more than 450,000 words and fell into six parts. On rewriting, I realized each of these six parts was a novel in itself. I have used that rough draft as the outline for the series."
In 1977, Jean M. began extensive library research of the Ice Age for her first book in Earth's Children Series. She joined a survival class to learn how to construct an ice cave, and learned primitive methods of making fire, tanning leather, and knapping stone, from aboriginal skills expert Jim Riggs, who Jean M. describes as "the kind of person you could put into one end of a wilderness naked, and he'd come out the other end fed, clothed, and sheltered."
Jean M. proceeded with work on the first novel. She rewrote it entirely four times, and some parts twenty to thirty times until she was satisfied with the end result. This was in September 1978. She had a hard time finding a publisher to take on the series, given the large task ahead - with five more novels pending. In September 1980, when The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel finally saw the light of day, it was an instant success. Within a month more than 100,000 copies had been sold, after which it was on the best-seller lists for eight more months.
After the success of the first book, Jean M. was able to travel to prehistoric sites and to meet many of the experts with whom she had been corresponding. Her research has taken her across the Old Europe from Spain to Ukraine. She has appreciated Atapuerca's discoveries and she has developed a close friendship with the French Dr. Jean Clottes, who was responsible for, among many other things, the exploration of the Cosquer Cave discovered in 1985 and the Chauvet Cave discovered in 1994.
For the future Jean M. says: "I've been working 17 years on this project, and I want to do something else—maybe a mystery, or a thin little literary science fiction book, or something. But, I admit, I've learned a lot. I love the research. I can't think of anything more fun than learning anything I want and earning a living writing about it the way I want to."