A Rock and a Hard Place

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.

cavepaintingsNot 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?

75 thoughts on “A Rock and a Hard Place

  1. camden

    I agree with Nadeem and Victoria; people are interested in the drawings in the cave and would like to visit the cave to learn about the history and culture. If visits by humans are being harmful to the ecosystem of the cave then visits to the cave should be limited. I don’t see any problems with learning the history and culture by watching video recordings of the cave.

  2. Priscilla Quach

    I think that the caves should be closed to the public. Yes it’s cool to see what our ancestors did and understand where we came from better, but not at the expense of the environment. I mean if people really want to see those drawings and preserve them forever in history, hellooo! It’s the 21st century. It’s called a camera?

  3. Ben Wise

    To me its a no brainer that these paintings should be closed off to te public. Is it worth losing a rare piece of history so some tourists can go “Oh. Well that’s neat.” Ive seen the original U.S. Constitution in person and it is almost completely faded from years of public viewing. When are we going to learn that curiosity killed the cat and will destroy many things that we take for granted?

  4. victoria troncoso

    This just shows how much of an impact our own carbon footprint actually has. Unfortunately it has taken a toll on the art work left in this cave. I hope that in the future we will learn to take better care of our Earth. This way we could preserve so much more, like our ancient art work, and we can save the little evidence of our history that we have left.

  5. Paul Nguyen

    That’s true. I think that art should be enjoyed as long as it exists. Nothing is ever permanent and people should enjoy it while its here. Of course the viewing of it will help it deteriorate more quickly but still, its going to be gone one day. I believe that we should document and record as much as we can and then let the population enjoy it to its death. As bad as that sounds, i think that’s the best balance between the two.

  6. victoria troncoso

    I agree with this, the art work in these caves were left for a reason. People thousands of years ago worked on them and it would be a shame to destroy this site of ancient culture. Although, this would be a very difficult decision to make since our environment is more important, even though the preservation of our culture is as well. It would be horrible to destroy such an old piece of our history. To kill off the beginning of evidence of us as humans seems unethical, although if it is what is necessary to save our environment then we obviously need to do what’s best for our world.

  7. Deeeevon

    Lascaux should definitely be open to the public. if the paintings are so prestigious then we should let the people have a chance to appreciate the artwork.

  8. BJ Dornubari

    I think our ancestors that left the cave drawings behind were smarter than what led on. Maybe if they examine the dyes the cave-dwellers used to create the drawings it can give insight to the tools and technology available to them.

  9. BJ Dornubari

    With cave drawings as such a widespread phenomena, then i think its safe to say the people that migrated from africa were already participating in cave drawings. The ones we see today are simply reminants of a larger and more proliferated array of artwork from out antients. So i think its important to do more to preserve them.

  10. meghan

    These places should no longer be open to the public once the our presence starts to erode and ruin the original artifacts. It’s the same thing with museums, we allow people to see the famous artwork but not rub their hands all over it due to the erosion of the medium from the oils on our hands…and the CO2 that we breathe out doesn’t so much effect the pieces due to the preservation of them. And, science will help us to have both. There will be a way to find another way to kill off this bacteria besides that biocides that won’t put people in danger of a massive bacterial infection or ruin the ecosystem.

  11. meghan

    Shouldn’t the scientists that are surrounding this project have assumed that this type of prolonged and massive visitation of the public would have started to cause the paint and the walls to erode? Shouldn’t they have planned ahead for this instead of trying to fix the aftermath of already some of these paintings being ruined and now a bacteria and NOW a resistant strain of a bacteria that could infect humans? All I’m saying, is that they should have been more prepared when planning to open this up to visitation..maybe encase it in something to prevent erosion from the air.

  12. Austin Henke- 09

    Elaborate Huntings? HA really. Most likely this guy is just some shunned artist that did not fit in with the ways of human life. At that time human beings were just struggling to be on the totum pole.
    The real unfortunate part is environment has gone untouched for so long. It is the real artwork. However i understand we do a lot to damage the world, i can even imagine a future of coast to coast concrete cities. But is this not what evolution is about. The microbes are evolving to handle the new environmental pressures, we are as much a hinderance as a volcano to a countryside or a hurricane to sea life

  13. Austin Henke- 09

    YEAH Tyler, along with looking for the cure to cancer and find out how to alter different genes lets go after an undiscovered bacteria to save the cave. Ha i rythmed. Here is what you do, you have people in a air tight carriage, that is hoisted down and out on a pulley that way our curiousity is satisfyed along with the safety of the ecosystem.

  14. parker ballew

    These caves are just one of many historical ecosystems that are being threatened by human interaction. They should continue researching biocides that will not cause the bacteria to become resistant, however they should also concentrate on other ecosystems that are “out of balance” like glaciers and the rainforest.

  15. Kathryn Davis

    I think that this cave has been open long enough. There must be pictures or replicas of the historic culture somewhere in the world that can make the public equally happy and not deal with them entering the cave. Why don’t we just not go into the cave? I think our selfishness that is ruining the history in this cave and an innocent ecosystem. So we should just be the bigger species and leave it be, and understand that a culture and a tribe lived there a long time ago and drew on the walls.

  16. Kathryn Davis

    I have had the chance to go to a cave, though it did not have drawings, it was amazing and quite humid. I find stories like these amazing; how something so beautiful and unique, like a cave, is formed by nature, and how the human race is able to make use of nature, live and produce in the cave, and draw their recollections on walls. And then teenagers discover a life of the past by mistake, and find information that lives were there and their culture, is just so breathtaking for me.

  17. Mayra Ramirez

    I definitely do believe that the historic caves should be closed to the public. I agree with Kathryn; we can’t let our selfishness and our interest for pleasure get in the way of placing our environment in danger. I understand that history is important, especially in answering our scientific questions. But their are other ways to quench are curiosity without any detrimental consequences.

  18. Lesly Ogden

    Would scientists be able to analyze the dyes used by the cavemen when they were drawn so many thousands of years ago? I don’t know if science could detect that sort of thing, only the types of tools used back then. Then again, with carbon dating, who knows what could be open to the world? If scientists could detect and come to a conclusion about the dyes used – besides guessing about cavemen using colors from plants and such – then yes, we could possibly deduce their level of intelligence and how it may exceed that which we had previously predicted and assumed.

  19. Lesly Ogden

    Eventually, the cave drawings will disappear. This would have happened without human intervention, I’m sure of it. After all, it’s the life cycle: everything lives, dies, and is recycled. Though, with this case, the paintings haven’t really “lived,” though they have withstood the test of time. Though, one day, they would have eventually decayed. Humans just sped up the process. But yes, one way to preserve them through the rest of time would be to take pictures. I’m sure many people have done that already, but once the paintings are gone, they’re gone. There’s no use in trying to preserve them for a prolonged period of time when they’re going to disappear anyway.

  20. Derrek Hamblin

    Wasn’t this from the Journey of Man video? The narrator related these paintings to the first people to come to Europe and stay. Looking back at the age man came to Europe, early in perspective to us, but much much later in time of man. These paintings must also reveal much of their culture and knowledge back then.

  21. Hannah James

    Leslie pointed out what I had in mind to say…that it is not only a mere glimpse of the creatures of the time or the depicted climate, but yes…archaeologists and scientists actually are working with not only radio carbon dating, but also thermoluminescent dating in order to decode the past. The evidence in these caves yields a broad spectrum of possible future revelations such as the materials used to paint…were they indigenous to the region? if not how did they get there? … which can lead to questions arising concerning this region of peoples relationship to other tribal peoples? did they trade ? Also the form of the drawings. Owing to the Letter B script tablets found at, I believe, it was the palace at Knossos near Greece that later evolved into the Greek language as we know it; and the discovery of the Phoenician Alphabet forms, we are coming closer to tracing the evolution of the written word, for lack of a better term, as humans evolved themselves. Therefore, again I believe that the key to understand our past and future, is to preserve the caves by restricting entrance. The preservation of the ecosystem and the true “history” of these caves goes hand in hand. It is not one or the other. It is up to humans to decided whether to be selfish and view it as a tourist attraction, a fleeting glimpse at something “cool”, then forgotten, or to be graciously noble and relinquish such whims, leaving it up to the professionals to gather all the knowlege they can; because “you have to know where you come from, in order to truly know where you’re going.” :]

  22. Christiana Kittelson

    Who said that the future generations cannot appreciate it? This delicate balance of ecosystems should be respected so the generations can appreciate it. It would be a shame that from a hundred years from now that it fades away and all due to the immediate gratification of tourism.

  23. Colin Ferguson

    Humans are on the Earth just like any other animal and should be free to explore all. The preservation of the ecosystem and the environment are much more important than the history and culture because history is in the past, but the ecosystem is a constantly changing thing that needs to maintained in the present making it vastly more important. Often to have one thing, another must be given up. Even with the great strides in science, it is probably unlikely that both can be had.

  24. Priscilla Quach

    I find it amusing that by trying to make everything better we’ve made everything worse. That seems to be a reoccurring theme in our history. We invade, we destroy, and we make everything worse trying to right our wrongs.

  25. kierra Pettit

    this seems to be a question that experts have to deal with all the time in a variety of fields because in their attempts to treat the caves they also risk damaging the paintings and habitat even more

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