This Week in CavesS

It feels so good to bring that headline back again. We have new developments and origin stories; ice-bound catastrophes averted and mysterious crimson disks identified. For all of these stories we have caves to thank (say thank you to the caves. Go on. Say it).

In China, plants have come one step closer to throwing off the harsh tyranny of the sun. A recent study published in the science journal PhytoKeys discusses several new plants in the nettle family that have been found growing in deep gorges and caves under an almost complete absence of light.

"When we stepped into our first cave, Yangzi cave, I was spell-bound. It had an eerie moonscape look to it and all I could see were clumps of plants in the nettle family growing in very dark condition."

According to the researchers, the plants do not grow in complete darkness but do grow in extremely low light levels, deep within the entrance caverns of the caves.

This seems like a rather unnecessary dig at the plants; quibbling over whether they grow in total darkness or merely nearly total darkness. But we will let the rudeness pass. Smug lightless animals that huddle around the smoking black vents on the ocean's floor would do well to watch themselves; plants are learning to do without the sun as well as they.

What other secrets have caves given us this week, you ask eagerly. For one thing, cave art is getting older, old enough to make your brain clutch with dizziness trying to count the years as they recede in a cold and vicious stampede:

Measuring the age of the cave paintings found across Europe is confounding because most images are made from inorganic pigments that leave few clues. In June archaeologist Alistair Pike, now at the University of Southampton, described a clever way to get answers: Analyze the breakdown of radioactive uranium-234 embedded in the natural mineral crust that forms on top of the artworks. Pike and his team applied the technique to drawings from 11 caves in the Cantabria and Asturias regions of northern Spain. They pegged the age of one illustration-a red disk in El Castillo cave-at 40,800 years old, making it the oldest known piece of European art by more than 5,000 years.

That is almost exactly the time when Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe. If modern humans made the drawings, then they must have arrived with artistic proclivities already developed, although there is no such cave art in Africa. Another possibility is that the art is not the work of human hands. Previous evidence has hinted that Neanderthals had a highly complex culture.

I cannot decide which possibility is better: the idea that Neanderthals were busy squirreling away art of their own into every grotto and hollow they could find before Homo sapiens came along and started smearing hand-turkeys on every available rock surface, or the idea that modern humans were so excited to start painting that they had to walk out of Africa before they could calm down enough to draw a freeform red circle with a steady hand. Either way, The Red Disk of El Castillo would make an excellent science fiction novel.

In Antarctica, scientists have been unable to gain entry to an ancient subterranean lake:

An international team of scientists have reportedly called off a research mission aimed at determining whether life exists in an underground lake in Antarctica.

Researchers working on the project cited a number of setbacks, including an attempt to create their first bore hole. The British Antarctic Survey project had intended to drill through the ice using near-boiling water to reach the lake, which they believed to have been sealed off from contact with the surface for as much as half a million years.

Let "no, this is a truly disappointing setback for scientific inquiry" contend with "what black and lurking masses would we have awoken there" inside of your breast. It's taken them sixteen years (sixteen years!) to meet this fresh new failure.

The mission was watched closely by scientists around the world. Biologists had pondered the possibility of discovering life in the underground lake, which they say has been in a state of perpetual isolation for more than 500,000 years. Lake Ellsworth, the site of the project, lies under 2 miles (3 kilometers) of ice and has been largely sealed off from the outside world. Scientists have been engaged in a 16-year gambit to drill down and take water samples from the lake. Researchers have suggested that life able to exist under such environmental conditions may help researchers better understand the origins of life on Earth and the possible forms life could take on other planets.

The team noted that the mission, which represented the cutting edge of science from the start, was largely an attempt to test the boundaries of current technology. The harsh Antarctic environment, coupled with the complete darkness of winter, translated to the team working at the site only during the comparatively mild months of austral spring and summer, from November through January.

I am all for discoveries, for science, for increased cave access. Whenever "more science" is the option, I click yes decidedly, appreciative layman that I am. But a scientific expedition plagued by setbacks, conducted entirely in the freezing dark, attempting to open something that has not been opened for thousands of years sounds eerily and ominously familiar. Perhaps it is for the best that we leave this slumbering lake to its own devices.

No, but I'm sure everything is safe and normal and fine. They're all fine down there. Nobody looks different after their encounter with the ice. Nobody's changed. Everyone's moving and talking and smiling and blinking and breathing like normal humans always do.

[Image via AP]