Cave paintings created around 40,000 years ago on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, among the world’s oldest cave art, are being destroyed by the climate crisis. A new study conducted by researchers at the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit of Griffith University in Australia describes the damage of rock art panels in recent decades due to climate-induced haloclasty, or salt crystallization.
The researchers found evidence of degradation on Pleistocene-aged artworks at 11 sites in the Maros-Pangkep cave complex of southern Sulawesi. The region boasts a 45,000-year-old, life-sized painting of a wild pig that was recently identified as the earliest known depiction of an animal, as well as the world’s oldest hand stencil and what may be the earliest narrative scene in prehistoric art. While climate fluctuations have long been a risk factor for the Maros-Pangkep limestone karsts, the threat has deepened in recent decades and is likely to intensify as temperatures continue to rise.
“These artworks are located in the world’s most atmospherically dynamic region, the Australasian monsoon domain,” says a report authored by Jill Huntley and the rest of the research team for the academic journal Nature. Extreme patterns of increased seasonal moisture from monsoonal rains and worsening droughts due to anthropogenic climate change are creating the ideal conditions for haloclasty and accelerating rock art deterioration, they add.
“The extent of salt efflorescence in the 11 Maros-Pangkep sites we investigated, coupled with conservative forecasts for a 1.5 to 2°C raise in global temperatures and accompanying extreme weather events, have grave implications for the conservation of this globally significant cultural heritage,” the study says.
The researchers say that aside from limestone quarrying carried out by the cement and marble industries, “global warming should be regarded as the greatest threat to the preservation of the ancient rock art that survives in Sulawesi and other parts of tropical Indonesia.”