To a remarkable degree, the cave paintings executed over 20 millenniums until about 11,000 years ago are concentrated in southern France and northeastern Spain. Some cultural impulse drove the early Homo sapiens of that region not only to venture deep into caves but also to paint and engrave them. Though some of the caves have been known for centuries, most were discovered or rediscovered in the 20th century.
Lascaux is the most famous: its grandeur makes it exemplary. But so do its travails, as José A. Lasheras, the director of the museum and cave of Altamira in Spain, acknowledges. "Altamira had the great luck that Lascaux had problems before we did," he says. Like Lascaux 16 years before it, Altamira shut down in 1979 after tourist numbers of almost 180,000 a year endangered the cave; it reopened in 1982 with a limit of 8,000 annual visitors. Altamira, too, constructed a replica of part of the cave as a diversion for tourists barred entry to the real thing, and in 2002 a year after Lascaux was hit by fungal infection the original Altamira cave was shut down again. "There was no evident problem, but we needed better instruments to monitor the cave's conditions," says Lasheras. "In another two years, we'll reopen it again, but only to the extent that the scientists consider safe."
Niaux, on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, has also learned lessons from Lascaux. "Right now we have a problem with high humidity deep in the cave," says Pascal Allard, the cave's director. "Thanks to the work that's been done in Lascaux, we don't have to spend so much time figuring out how to monitor conditions here. We're doing the same kind of meter-by-meter surveillance of the cave that they developed there. We don't have the same kind of problems, but that's partly because Lascaux has shown the importance of limiting visitation and keeping a close eye on the cave's condition." The same precautions are maintained at font de gaume, a cave located just down the Vézère valley from Lascaux. Privately-owned Tuc d'Audoubert and Trois Freres have never admitted tourists.
Rouffignac, another privately-owned cave 25 km west of Lascaux, has a natural advantage: its massive size. The cave's owners installed an electric train through some of its 8 km of tunnels in 1959. The carriages transport 30 people at a time into the cave, which has no fixed illumination. "We limit the visits to 550 people per day, and the fact that they don't get out and walk has helped preserve the cave," says Marie-Odile Plassard, a Rouffignac guide. "And we've never modified the air circulation like they did in Lascaux."
Yanik Le Guillou, curator of cave paintings in the Midi-Pyrenees region which includes the caves of Niaux, Gargas and Pech Merle, acknowledges that Lascaux has been a "detonator of concerns for other caves," but that those concerns would have eventually arisen without it. "Even if we've made errors," he says, "it's almost exclusively here in France that scientific research on cave conservation has been done, and our policies are rigorous." And ever more so. In 1994, 30,000-year-old paintings were discovered in Chauvet cave, recalibrating the timescale of cave painting. Only researchers are allowed in, and in light of Chauvet's fragility and Lascaux's experience that is unlikely ever to change.