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Explained: How climate change is destroying the world’s oldest cave art in Indonesia

Researchers have reported that Pleistocene-era rock paintings dating back to 45,000-20,000 years ago in cave sites in southern Sulawesi, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, are weathering at an alarming rate.

Written by Vandana Kalra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 27, 2021 11:07:38 am
Explained: How climate change is destroying the world’s oldest cave artLocation of the studied rock art sites in the limestone karsts of Maros-Pangkep, Sulawesi (Indonesia). (Sources: GEBCO, Esri, NASA, NGA, USGS)

Scientists have warned that environmental degradation is killing one of the oldest and most precious pieces of the world’s human heritage. Researchers writing in the online peer-reviewed open access journal ‘Scientific Reports’, published by Nature Research, have reported that Pleistocene-era rock paintings dating back to 45,000-20,000 years ago in cave sites in southern Sulawesi, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, are weathering at an alarming rate. (‘The effects of climate change on the Pleistocene rock art of Sulawesi’: Scientific Reports, 13 May 2021; Huntley, et al.)

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Significance of the cave paintings

A team of Australian and Indonesian archaeological scientists, conservation specialists, and heritage managers examined 11 caves and rock-shelters in the Maros-Pangkep region in Sulawesi.

The artwork in the area includes what is believed to be the world’s oldest hand stencil (almost 40,000 years ago), created by pressing the hand on a cave wall, and spraying wet red-mulberry pigments over it.

A nearby cave features the world’s oldest depiction of an animal, a warty pig painted on the wall 45,500 years ago.

The cave art of Sulawesi is much older than the prehistoric cave art of Europe.

Findings of the study

The researchers studied flakes of rock that have begun to detach from cave surfaces to find that salts in three of the samples comprise calcium sulphate and sodium chloride, which are known to form crystals on rock surfaces, causing them to break.

The artwork made with pigments was decaying due to a process known as haloclasty, which is triggered by the growth of salt crystals due to repeated changes in temperature and humidity, caused by alternating wet and dry weather in the region.

Indonesia has also experienced several natural disasters in recent years, which have quickened the process of deterioration.

The recommendations

The area is known to be home to over 300 cave paintings, and more are being discovered with further explorations.

While many of these have been studied for several decades, it is only recently that accurate dating has been made possible with newer techniques, enriching our knowledge of their cultural and historical significance.

With increased rapid environmental degradation, the researchers have recommended regular physical and chemical monitoring of the sites, akin to the preservation efforts at the French and Spanish prehistoric cave art sites such as Lascaux and Altamira.

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