For more than 17,000 years, the bestiary of the Lascaux cave in southwestern France survived the ravages of history, unseen and undiscovered. Entering it now is like walking into a time capsule, where 12-foot-long bulls and plump yellow horses appear to float across the vaults like religious apparitions. Although the draftsmanship is strikingly Modernist--on exiting the cave in 1940, Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked, "We have invented nothing"--these creations are remnants of the Upper Paleolithic Age, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors acquired the gift of consciousness and a knack for nature drawing.
But despite its robust longevity, Lascaux is surprisingly fragile. Five years ago, after the ill-conceived installation of new climatic equipment, Lascaux suffered a fungal infection that threatened to destroy in a few years what thousands of years had left largely unscathed. The cave's custodians are still struggling to eradicate this scourge, a nasty fungus called Fusarium solani. Access is strictly limited; TIME was allowed to visit the cave because its keepers feel they finally have the outbreak under control. But to keep the fungus in retreat, a team of restorers enters the cave every two weeks--dressed, as everyone who enters now must be, in hooded biohazard suits, booties and face masks--to remove filaments from the walls. "They tell us the cave's condition is stable," says a member of the Scientific Committee of Lascaux Cave, which the French Ministry of Culture set up in 2002 to deal with the problem. "But that's what they say about Ariel Sharon." The sad fact is that visitors to Lascaux today come to look not for wonder, insight or inspiration. They come to look for fluffy tufts of mold.
This is a story about three kinds of culture: the cultural heritage of Lascaux's art, the stubborn mold that threatens it and the arcane and insular culture of French bureaucracy that diffuses responsibility for what went wrong. But it begins and ends with the beauty and mystery of the Lascaux cave. "It's so spectacular that it boggles the mind," says Jean Clottes, one of the world's foremost experts on cave paintings. "When I first saw it, I cried."
Art restorer Rosalie Godin was overwhelmed for a very different reason when she was urgently called to Lascaux in August 2001 by France's Research Laboratory for Historical Monuments (LRMH). "It was as if it had snowed in the cave. Everything was covered in white," she says. Two of the cave's caretakers, Bruno Desplat and Sandrine van Solinge, had raised the alarm when they discovered that white filaments, first spotted in isolated parts of the cave months before, had spread over much of the interior in a matter of days. Desplat, who lives next to Lascaux and has devoted more than 15 years to its care, says that when he saw the luxuriant bloom, he became physically ill.