Unesco, the world cultural body, has threatened to humiliate France by placing the Lascaux caves – known as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistory" – on its list of endangered sites of universal importance.
The Unesco world heritage committee, meeting this week in Quebec, has given the French government six months to report on the success of its efforts to save the Lascaux cave paintings in Dordogne from an ugly, and potentially destructive, invasion of grey and black fungi.
At the same time, a scientific committee appointed by the French government has conceded that an elaborate treatment with a new fungicide in January failed to stop the mould advancing through one part of the caves.
An independent pressure group of scientists and historians claims that up to half of the startlingly beautiful, 17,000-year-old images of bison, horses, wild cattle and ibex are now threatened by the fungal invasion – the second of its kind in eight years.
The heritage committee warned France this week that it will consider placing Lascaux on its list of imperilled cultural and natural sites of global significance unless progress is made by next February. The committee requested France to open Lascaux – closed to the public since 1963 – to a visit by independent experts. It also advised France to commission an "impact study" of all past, and possible future, actions in the caves since the first fungal invasion in 2001-02.
There are already 31 sites on the Unesco "List of World Heritage in Danger", including such treasures as the ancient Buddha statues of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, partly destroyed by the Taliban. Only one of the existing, officially threatened sites is in western Europe – the architectural heritage of the Dresden-Elbe valley in eastern Germany, site of a planned motorway. A decision by the Unesco committee to list Lascaux as "endangered" would, therefore, be a severe embarrassment to France. Unesco would, in effect, be telling Paris that it can no longer be trusted to manage one of the world's most important historical and cultural treasures.