Prehistoric 'Sistine Chapel' under threat from fungus

A pernicious white fungus has spread "like snow" in the caves of Lascaux in France where the fabulous rock art has been described as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistory".

The fungus is believed to have been introduced after contractors began to install a new air conditioning system that was meant to preserve the precious 17,000-year-old cave paintings from the heat and humidity generated by their many visitors.

The historical importance of Lascaux is immeasurable and any damage to its art would have serious repercussions given the cave's status as an evolutionary icon for the development of human art and consciousness.

The figures are so modernist in design that when Picasso emerged from the cave soon after it was first discovered in 1940 he exclaimed: "We have invented nothing."

Some experts who have seen the damage claimed that the French authorities had deliberately played down the scale of the problem because of their embarrassment at allowing it to happen to a World Heritage Site.

At one time, the fungus covered the floors of the entire cave system near Perigueux in the Dordogne in central France, although the curator of Lascaux insisted yesterday that the infestation had now been brought under control.

"The fungus appeared very suddenly. All the floor was covered as if in snow, but only the floor, not the paintings on the walls," said Dr Jean-Michel Geneste, director of the French government's National Centre for Prehistory. "We think that now there is no risk to the paintings. A few years ago we thought there would be a risk to them because of this fungus."

However, other visitors to the caves are not convinced that the fight against the fungus, which first appeared in 2001 just months after a new air-conditioning system was installed, has been won.

"They tell us the cave's condition is stable. But that's what they say about Ariel Sharon," said one anonymous expert quoted in a special report by Time magazine.

The magazine also claims that French officials last month admitted for the first time that the fungus had spread from the floor to the wall paintings.

One photograph published by Time shows the fungus apparently attacking a prehistoric horse painted on one of the walls of the cave's main gallery.

Teams of scientists are working in shifts to carefully remove visible filaments of the fungus - a species identified as Fusarium solani - by meticulously plucking them from the wall of the cave by hand, the magazine says.

"One knowledgeable visitor to the cave last month not only saw Fusarium on the paintings, but noticed a greyish tinge to formerly black surfaces where growths had been removed," the magazine says.

The archaeologist Paul Bahn, an expert on cave art, said: "This is extremely worrying. If the fungus is reaching the paintings, it's potentially catastrophic."

But Dr Geneste denied that there had been any damage to the painted figures of prehistoric bulls, horses and reindeer which are depicted running across the cave's walls and ceilings.

"The paintings are really fresh. There is no damage to the paintings, although there was a danger if the fungus was allowed to develop over many years," Dr Geneste said yesterday.

The fungus first appeared in 2001 and its sudden growth coincided with work to install a new active method of conditioning the internal atmosphere of the cave using fans to draw air through the underground cavern.

To accommodate the machinery, the contractors removed a roof over the entrance but a torrential downpour caused rainwater and mud to be washed into the cave, possibly introducing fungal spores in the process.

"The construction site was run like someone redoing a bathroom. The entrance to the cave was like a swamp and there was construction waste all over the place. It was like an apocalyptic vision," Rosalie Godin, a local art restorer, told Time.

Eventually the fans were taken out and the cave's curators were faced with the difficult job of trying to fight the fungus with antibiotic chemicals applied to the walls and quicklime spread on the floor, neither of which proved a success.

In the end Dr Geneste said that the best method turned out to be the mechanical removal of fungal filaments by hand, with the help of a special vacuum cleaner.

The device directs a high-pressure spray at the fungus which is then immediately sucked into sealed bottles that are removed from the cave.

After the cave was discovered, many thousands of visitors came to see its paintings each day but the increase in temperature and humidity took its toll, leading to the cave's first closure in 1962.

In 1983 a facsimile cave, known as "Lascaux 2", opened nearby to accommodate the public. Meanwhile, scientists and scholars studying the original cave were limited to five a day, five times a week.

However, the complete closure of Lascaux to all outsiders has led some cave experts to criticise the apparent secrecy over the type of conservation work being carried out inside the cavern.

Dr Geneste said that he had asked for an independent report on the conservation work to be published to dispel accusations of a cover-up. "I'm asking for the authorities to put it on the internet, even though it was meant to be confidential," he said.

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvAs the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian on why he'll never bow to critics who habitually circle his work
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
VIDEO
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey outside Mo Nabbach’s M&M Hair Academy in west London before the haircut
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Keeper flaps at Nasri's late leveller, but Black Cat striker's two goals in 10 minutes had already done damage
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Sport
video
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal