Altamira caves to test limited visitors approach. News in Conservation, Issue 43, 2014

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Replica of the Altamira Cave in the museum of Teberga. Copyright Nachosan CC BY-SA 3.0
Altamira Spain

ALTAMIRA, SPAIN—The Cave of Altamira is a cave in northern Spain containing Upper Palaeolithic paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals including bison and horses and human hands dating some 22,000 years ago.
The cave was closed to visitors in 2002 due to concerns over the damaging effects visitors were having over the fragile art painted on the cave’s walls. Researchers had in-fact observed the growth of algae-like mold on the cave walls.
Following the closure, visitors were offered instead access to a nearby museum that contains an exact replica of part of the cave, including its main painted chamber.
Now Altamira is being partially reopened causing a revival of the debate over whether such a prehistoric site can withstand the presence of modern-day visitors. As part of a new study, since February 2014 five randomly chosen visitors a week have been allowed to enter the cave wearing special protective suits. The goal of the study is to determine “if there is a form of public visiting that is compatible with the adequate conservation of Altamira,” José Antonio Lasheras, director of the Altamira museum, told The New York Times in an interview. The results of the investigation are due in September.
Some scientists are concerned that the experiment will endanger the rock art in order to promote tourism. “All the data indicate the fragility of the cave and its propensity to suffer a fungal infection if it is opened to visits,” said Cesáreo Sáiz Jiménez, a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council.