The French government is taking emergency action to rescue the celebrated cave paintings of the Lascaux caverns from a fungus.

Archeological experts have begun applying a fungicide to halt the spread of grey and black mould in the caverns, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of prehistory.

The caves, discovered in 1940 by teenagers walking a dog, contain images of bulls, deer and horses believed to be 15,000-17,000 years old.

The French government has closed the caves located about 450 kilometres south of Paris to everyone, including scientists and historians, for three months and will replace an air circulation system that may be partly responsible for the fungus.

The system, installed seven years ago, may have been poorly designed, as a similar fungal attack took place after its installation.

The fungus, which grows because of moist conditions, is threatening some of the 600 drawings in yellow, red and black mineral pigments that cover the caves.

The drawings, believed to have been painted by hunter-gatherers, have survived since the last Ice Age.

A team of specialists who assessed the site before Christmas recommended stopping all activity in the caverns and taking action to stop the fungus.

They put pressure on the French government by alerting UNESCO, which classifies the caverns as a World Heritage Site, about the conditions…

The experts disagreed on the cause of the problem. Some say global warming is to blame, others that human activity in the caves is exacerbating the problems.

One of the projects to be halted by the emergency treatment is a survey that was to make a three-dimensional digital record of every painting in the caverns.

CBC News