How Climate Change Is Destroying Indonesia’s Ancient Rock Art

Extreme weather events caused by climate change are creating the ideal conditions for the degradation of some of the world’s oldest rock art.

AsianScientist (May. 18, 2021) – Climate change’s alarming impacts aren’t just limited to the environment. As scientists have found out, climate change may also compromise our cultural heritage—accelerating the degradation of some of the world’s earliest rock art found in Asia. The study was published in Scientific Reports.

While France’s Lascaux caves have gained worldwide fame for the prehistoric animal paintings on its walls, such ancient art isn’t limited to western Europe. Just last January, archaeologists discovered the world’s oldest animal cave painting—a life-size Celebes warty pig created around 44,000 years ago—in the limestone caves of the Indonesian island Sulawesi. The same area also houses the oldest known hand stencil in the world, which has been estimated to be at least 39,900 years old.

Despite the rich cultural legacy of Asia’s tropics, local heritage workers are raising the alarm—with their anecdotal reports suggesting the accelerated destruction of Indonesia’s famed rock art in recent decades. However, the reasons behind this deterioration remain unclear.

To determine the potential causes of accelerated rock art degradation, an international team from Indonesia and Australia investigated 11 cave art sites in Maros-Pangkep, Sulawesi. Specifically, they analyzed flakes of rock that had begun to detach from the cave surfaces.

The surprising culprit? Salt. Within the rock flakes, the authors found calcium sulfate, sodium chloride (table salt), as well as sulfur, a common component of several salts, across all 11 sites. Such salts are known to form crystals on rock surfaces, which may cause the rocks to break apart.

Further exacerbating the formation of salt crystals is the fact that the artworks are located in the world’s most atmospherically dynamic region. Known as the Australasian monsoon domain, the area undergoes repeated changes in temperature and humidity caused by alternating periods of seasonal rainfall and drought. These constant weather changes create the ideal conditions for salt crystallization—and in turn, rock art degradation.

With human-induced climate change making extreme weather events more frequent and severe, Indonesia’s ancient cave art is especially susceptible to increasing salt crystallization. In light of this, long-term monitoring and conservation efforts are needed to protect ancient rock art particularly in tropical regions.

“The rock art of Maros-Pangkep warrants monitoring and conservation efforts on par with those carried out over decades in Europe. The exceptionally old cave art of Indonesia is located within a dynamic tropical environment that renders it particularly vulnerable to the destructive impacts of climate change, adding unique urgency to this call for further research,” concluded the authors.

The article can be found at: Huntley et al. (2021) The effects of climate change on the Pleistocene rock art of Sulawesi.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist