|OFF THE ENDANGERED LIST? Bison roam the ceilings of Altamira Cave|
The cavern that houses Spain’s most celebrated prehistoric art is on the mend from a microbial infestation that closed it to the public. A push from regional government officials to reopen Altamira Cave to visitors has researchers who worked to improve its condition worried that their efforts will be undone (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1206788). But like the bacterial colonies dotting the storied cave’s walls, the scientific and ethical issues that will determine its fate are colored in shades of gray.
Nestled underground near a village in northern Spain, Altamira Cave contains astonishingly lifelike renderings of fawns, horses, and bison painted on its ceilings. The multicolored likenesses, more than 14,000 years old, are recognized as a pinnacle of Paleolithic rock art. The United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Altamira Cave a World Heritage Site in 1985.
As Altamira became a tourist hub, ensuring its preservation became problematic. Officials closed the cave in the late 1970s, and then reopened it in 1982 to vastly reduced numbers of visitors. This limited schedule, however, wasn’t enough to keep the cave’s delicate ecosystem in balance. With bacteria encroaching on the paintings, officials closed the cave to the public in 2002. A team led by geologist Sergio Sánchez-Moral and microbiologist Cesáreo Sáiz-Jiménez of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) was tasked with cave cleanup and preservation.