Climate Change Is Eroding 40,000-Year-Old Rock Art

Just when you thought climate change could not do any more harm.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Climate change! There's been much discussion about the phenomenon, all negative. Now it seems climate change is slowly destroying our most ancient and treasured rock art that to this day provides insight into the early lives of our ancestors.

A new study out of Griffith University is showing that global warming is slowly but surely erasing ancient paintings in the limestone caves of southern Sulawesi, Indonesia drawn between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. These works of art are some of the world’s first known cave paintings.

To figure out what has been going wrong the researchers analyzed 11 different cave painting sites using microscopes and other techniques such as chemical analyses and crystal identification. They found that salt crystals are now forming on the cave’s walls, causing the rock to break and flake and destroying the paintings in the process.

"The equatorial tropics house some of the earliest rock art yet known, and it is weathering at an alarming rate. Here we present evidence for haloclasty (salt crystallization) from Pleistocene-aged rock art panels at 11 sites in the Maros-Pangkep limestone karsts of southern Sulawesi," write the authors in their study.

"We show how quickly rock art panels have degraded in recent decades, contending that climate-catalyzed salt efflorescence is responsible for increasing exfoliation of the limestone cave surfaces that house the ~ 45 to 20-thousand-year-old paintings."

If something is not done to reverse this, we may be losing some of the most important parts of our history. Unfortunately, as much as we do know about climate change, we are at a loss as to what to do about it and all its negative consequences.

As the researchers say in a commentary of their work, these paintings have "managed to survive tens of thousands of years through major episodes of climate variation, from the cold of the last ice age to the start of the current monsoon." What a pity it would be if they could not survive the 21st Century.

The researchers propose that we document the paintings in great detail and that we seek to find any other of the ancient works of art we may have missed before they are gone forever. Does that mean they don't foresee a solution where we actually manage to save the paintings? Only time will tell.

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