Several caves located on the small Indonesian island of Sulawesi, are home to nearly 45,000-year-old rock paintings. These caves contain depictions of animals, outlines of handprints, and assorted symbols, all of which mark the presence of ancestors from long ago. These are some of the oldest recorded cave paintings in the world but climate change is impeding their preservation.
According to one recent study published in the journal Nature, changes to the climate might not be the only factor influencing the deterioration of the caves. Researchers credit pollution and activity from nearby limestone mining sites as harmful factors but note that the degradation of the rock art is “a consequence of climate change over the past four centuries,” and that climate change is the singular “most pressing threat to rock art preservation in this region.”
The study’s team of researchers found that salt crystallization and severe weather are likely responsible for the degradation of some of the world’s most ancient rock paintings. The cave surfaces, which are made of limestone, are vulnerable to disintegration when met with intensified droughts and subsequently, flooding. The study reported that the region’s droughts are becoming more severe, and when “higher ambient temperatures and more consecutive dry days” are “combined with seasonal moisture injected via monsoonal rains,” this allows for the formation of salt crystals which then produces “ideal conditions for evaporation and haloclasty, accelerating rock art deterioration.”
This rapid deterioration leaves researchers scrambling and could ultimately affect our understanding of the art’s cultural and historical significance. In an effort to preserve the cave paintings and collect as much data as much as possible, researchers have advised keeping the sites under regular observation for any physical and chemical changes.