Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Francesco
Sauro

Exploring the unknown
in Amazonia’s caves

Francesco Sauro Francesco Sauro

Abseiling deep inside South America’s fabled table-top mountains, Francesco Sauro will explore a labyrinth of subterranean caves, isolated from discovery. Until now.

“There is a universe of silence in this ‘lost world’. It has been absolute. Your footsteps are the first sound, perhaps for millions of years. Reality overwhelms the imagination.” Francesco Sauro’s words convey the rapture the Italian geologist, caver and author experiences as a leader in the risky yet awe-inspiring field of speleology. Inheriting his love of the subterranean world from his family, he leads expeditions into the planet’s darkest places.

Inside thelabyrinth

After a helicopter flight to the ‘Houses of the Gods’ – the majestic table-top mountains of South America – Francesco Sauro and his team will descend into a realm where silence and darkness have reigned for millions of years.

The object of their expedition is to explore the labyrinth of caves that lies beneath some of the most inaccessible of our planet’s hidden worlds, the sheer mountains that rise out of South America’s Amazonian forest.

venezuela

brazil

Based on a United Nations map

Mapping lost worlds

Geography of the tepuis

Francesco Sauro’s expeditions

  • Mapping
    lost worlds

    Geography of the tepuis

    While the most significant of the tepuis in Brazil and Venezuela have been partially surveyed by cavers, most of those in Amazonia have not been explored. The focus of Francesco Sauro’s Rolex project are the massifs Neblina, Aracà, Duida and Marahuaca. Sauro has made four expeditions to the Auyán Tepui, where he discovered Imawarí Yeutá, the world’s longest cave in quartzite. He plans to return in the next three years to continue his scientific studies.

    Click on the map to learn more

  • Auyán Tepui

    Venezuela

  • Duida Tepui

    Venezuela

  • Marahuaka Tepui

    Venezuela

  • Aracá Tepui

    Brazil

  • Cerro Neblina

    Venezuela and Brazil

Key facts

    1. Location

      Venezuela, Gran Sabana

    2. Coordinates

      05° 54' 01" N 62° 32' 29" W

    3. Elevation

      2,450 m

    4. Total number of speleological expeditions

      9

    5. Summit surface

      670 km²

    6. Number of cave systems explored

      more than 25

    7. Slope surface

      795 km²

    8. Cumulative length of caves explored

      around 35 km

    9. Most important cave system

      Imawarí Yeutá, over 20 km long, considered the longest cave in the world in quartz-sandstone lithology, discovered by the La Venta and Theraphosa exploring teams in 2013.

    1. Location

      Venezuela, Amazonas

    2. Coordinates

      03° 30' 48" N 65° 37' 34" W

    3. Elevation

      2,358 m

    4. Total number of speleological expeditions

      0

    5. Summit surface

      1,089 km²

    6. Number of cave systems explored

      0

    7. Slope surface

      715 km²

    8. Cumulative length of caves explored

      0

    1. Location

      Venezuela, Amazonas

    2. Coordinates

      03° 39' 36" N 65° 24' 24" W

    3. Elevation

      2,832 m

    4. Total number of speleological expeditions

      0

    5. Summit surface

      121 km²

    6. Number of cave systems explored

      0

    7. Slope surface

      325 km²

    8. Cumulative length of caves explored

      0

    1. Location

      Brazil, Amazonas

    2. Coordinates

      00° 53' 45" N 63° 23' 30" W

    3. Elevation

      1,780 m

    4. Total number of speleological expeditions

      2

    5. Summit surface

      250 km²

    6. Number of cave systems explored

      1

    7. Slope surface

      300 km²

    8. Cumulative length of caves explored

      1 km

    9. Most important cave system

      Abismo Guy Collet, a 671-m deep crevice considered to be the deepest known cave in quartzite lithology in the world, explored by Brazilian-Italian team Akakor.

    1. Location

      Venezuela and Brazil, Amazonas

    2. Coordinates

      00° 53' 11" N 65° 59' 22" W

    3. Elevation

      2,994 m

    4. Total number of speleological expeditions

      0

    5. Summit surface

      473 km²

    6. Number of cave systems explored

      0

    7. Slope surface

      1,515 km²

    8. Cumulative length of caves explored

      0

  • Auyán Tepui
  • Duida Tepui
  • Marahuaka Tepui
  • Aracá Tepui
  • Cerro Neblina

Watch the short film

2014 Rolex Young Laureate Francesco Sauro describes his plan to explore the vast quartzite caves of the tepuis of Brazil and Venezuela, in search for clues to the evolution of Earth.

Deep inside the houses of the gods

When Francesco Sauro and his exploration team penetrate the absolute darkness of the caves that honeycomb South America’s remote jungle massifs, the tepuis, something entirely new to human knowledge will be found.

The Italian speleologist is leading four expeditions to discover what lies at the roots of the most isolated of these mountaintops: Duida and Marahuaka in southern Venezuela, and Pico da Neblina and Serra do Aracá in Brazil. With the support of exploration associations La Venta from Italy and Theraphosa from Venezuela, and with funding from Rolex, Sauro will explore and map caverns hollowed from primordial rock, discovering animals and unknown minerals formed by processes almost as old as the Earth itself.

“Because these caves are cut off from one another, we know that each time we enter one, we will discover a new species – a cricket or spider, maybe, or a blind fish,” Sauro explains. By mapping the ‘genetic drift’ as species evolve away from a common stock, the team hopes to develop a cave chronology. Possibly some may shelter the descendants of creatures that lived before the dinosaurs became extinct.

Of equal fascination is the discovery of minerals, the products of the unique bio-geological processes of cave formation within the tepuis. Already one new mineral – rossiantonite – has been identified from explored caves.

To the indigenous people, the tepuis are both sacred and terrible: their vertical walls and mist-shrouded plateaus are believed to be the dwelling places of deities, some benign, many malevolent: they are the home of flood and thunder. Sauro plans to share the expedition’s discoveries with these indigenous people, especially, as well as the citizens and governments of Venezuela and Brazil, in a spirit of respect. “Pemon and Yanomami are the traditional owners and guardians of knowledge about the table-top mountains; it is fitting that they should continue to have stewardship of it and benefit from whatever flows from it,” he says.

Former Rolex Award Laureate Antonio De Vivo, who is in Sauro’s expedition team, describes the caves as an archive of time. Watch the video.

1.7 billion years ago

The tepuis are mountains from the depths of time. Shaped out of 1.7 billion-year-old quartz-sandstone and isolated from the surrounding landscape by fluvial erosion in the last hundreds of millions of years, they form island refuges which are home to a life as rich and rare as that of the Galapagos Islands.

Silence & darkness

“The profound darkness is a strange phenomenon: your world is within your narrow beam of light but around you, all else remains mysterious. The dark exerts a fascination,” says Sauro.

SCIENCE & EXPLORATION

The caves of the tepuis were formed by infinitely gradual processes that are still not fully clear to science. Unlike limestone caves which are carved out by water dissolving the calcium carbonate, quartz is one of the hardest and least soluble minerals on Earth. Instead it is likely a process called ‘arenisation’ occurs: this is the gradual dissolution of the grain boundaries turning the rock to sand. This peculiar process is due to chemical, microbial, hydrolytic and other forces.

STUDY & ANALYSIS

Francesco Sauro examines a rock sample in his laboratory at the University of Bologna, Italy, piecing together clues that reveal the story of the Earth’s evolution.

Francesco Sauro

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

“Exploration for me is not only about achieving new knowledge. It is also a personal journey that drives you to dream of imaginary places – which finally turn out to be real, extant worlds, more marvellous than you had dreamed. It is a hard journey, but one that leaves me astonished after every expedition,” says Sauro, who regularly trains in the Dolomites in Italy.

Francesco Sauro

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Sauro and his team must penetrate an unknown maze of tunnels, fissures and vast caverns, abyssal drops and subterranean rivers, descending possibly a thousand metres or more beneath the surface.

Francesco Sauro

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

The inter-stratum galleries of Flatlandia in the Imawarí Yeutá cave of the Auyán Tepui are some of the many caverns explored by Sauro. He has led 23 expeditions in Europe and Latin America over the past 10 years.

Francesco Sauro

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

While the tepuis tower 1,000 to 3,000 metres above the jungles of Amazonia, the quartzite caves beneath them contain hundreds of kilometres of twisting subterranean passages.

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Follow Francesco Sauro as he explores the vast quartzite caves of South America’s table-top mountains. Join other people, all over the world, who are helping Sauro discover unique worlds isolated from discovery for millions of years.