If you have ever visited a place like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, or the Inner Space Caverns here in Texas, then you know that these are underground caves that are popular tourist attractions, drawing thousands of people to visit them annually. In France, the Lascaux Caves are also a popular destination for people who want to have a peek at man’s earliest artistic representation of his environment and events in his life.
Not sure what the Lascaux Caves are? Have a look at the paintings on the left there. These paintings are estimated to be 16-20,000 years old, and are very elaborate paintings of hunts that people living during that time conducted. These paintings are thought to be an excellent insight into human life at that time, since there is no other written evidence available that gives us a glimpse into life during prehistoric times. They were first discovered in 1940 by a group of teens who were exploring in the woods and came upon the caves by accident. The caves were open to the public after World War II, and many people from all over the world visited the caves to marvel at the paintings and the stories they told.
Unfortunately for the paintings, the carbon dioxide given off by the millions who had visited them took its toll, and in 1963, the cave was closed to the public to aid in the preservation of the art within. A replica of the cave and its paintings was opened 20 years later so that people could still enjoy the artwork without endangering the original work. In 2001, a fungus was found to be infesting the cave, aided by a new ventilation system as well as the people who had previously visited the cave. To control the spread of the fungus, biocides were applied in an attempt to retard fungal growth. While the biocidal chemicals applied controlled fungal growth in parts of the cave most often visited by people, the pigments left behind by the fungi still remain, permanently staining the walls of the cave. Another problem that has arisen is the development of biocide-resistant microbes, including bacteria that normally cause disease in humans. If these bacteria are being exposed to biocides and are becoming resistant, this could signal a problem for future visitors of the cave.
All caves have unique ecosystems that must remain in balance, and when humans decide to explore in them or otherwise enter, the very action of their entrance alters the balance of the ecosystem within the cave. In a place like Lascaux that holds so much historical and cultural significance, the alteration of the ecosystem that occurs with each visit must be accounted for. Should places such as Lascaux be open to the public? Which is more important: preservation of history and culture, or preservation of ecosystem and environment? Can science help us to have both?