“I never crawled out of a cave that fast!”
Our colleague Sophie Verheyden is a fanatic speleologist. Quite an advantage when you are a geologist studying speleothems, like stalagmites and stalactites. One of her major discoveries was last year, when she could date stalagmite constructions (containing traces of fire) far into the cave of Bruniquel (Southwestern France) as being 176,500 years old. That indicated that early Neanderthals, well before Homo sapiens, knew how to use fire to circulate in enclosed spaces far from daylight. Just watch this cool documentary.
“Speleology is so fascinating”, Sophie says. She remembers exploring a cave in Italy. “We had to dive through a siphon, a section that is flooded to the ceiling, and climb a 50 meter high waterfall, before we could explore a dozen side galleries. I was walking through the very fine, untouched sand… Looking back, I saw my own footprints, and realized I was the first EVER in that place. You feel mighty and humble at the same time. In one of the other galleries, closer to the river, we discovered a bear ‘nest’, not far from the skulls and bones that had already been found in the main gallery. So, there must have been an entrance nearby, but until now we haven’t found it.”
Speleology is not without danger. “In Mexico I was measuring a cave with an underground river. After a rainstorm the water had risen 50 meters: the calm lake on the cave bottom had turned into a wild underground river. After a week, we could re-enter the cave, but we were still wary of the roaring waters. We constantly listened to the sound of the river. Suddenly, the noise was getting louder, the water was rising! I never crawled out of a cave that fast!”
First two by
in the Grottes de Han, Belgium. The third by Michel Soulier/SSAC
during the exploration of the Bruniquel cave, France)