BANGKOK: Some of the world’s oldest and most important rock art, created by ancient civilizations in South Sulawesi, is being destroyed at an alarming rate due to the impacts of climate change.
Research by experts at Griffith University Australia and Indonesian scholars shows how the vivid and priceless cave patterns depicting animals, hunting scenes and supernatural beings are damaged as temperatures rise and as the weather becomes more extreme.
The team’s research paper, published in Scientific Reports last week, focuses on 11 limestone karst sites in Maros-Pangkep where works of art discovered date back more than 44,000 years. They have global significance.
âThe art has been known since the 1950s, but its antiquity has only been known since around 2014,â said Dr Jillian Huntley, a rock art conservationist at Griffith University.
âWhat we learned about this rock art in South Sulawesi, in one region, in just 10 or 11 years, completely changed what we thought we knew about human history.
READ: How an illegal logger’s switch to greener work shows a way to save Indonesia’s forests
“This is us. These are our ancestors, some of the very first humans in this region. We still don’t know much about them. The discovery of this art literally rewrote textbooks,” she said. at CNA.
After surviving tens of thousands of years, works of art deteriorate rapidly under rapidly warming humid conditions.
Research shows that rising temperatures, consecutive dry days, and powerful monsoon episodes accelerate the build-up of salt crystals in cave systems that contain rock art.
âWater and salts are the most destructive agents of deterioration that I have seen,â said Dr Huntley.
âIt is water that passes through the stone and it is also water that is washed on the face of the stone. Especially in environments where evaporation is very high, as the water passes it picks up all of those natural minerals which retain salt and when the water evaporates it drops the crystals.
“On top of the rock face, the crystals actually start to chemically break down the actually cemented surface.”
What is a fairly normal process has accelerated to the point that the patterns are simply crumbling, at hundreds of sites across the region. Dr Huntley says that of the 300 or so known rock art sites in South Sulawesi, almost all have been affected.
âArt is there because it has reached a balance with its environment. But something like the acceleration of bad weather under climate change, you tip that balance and something that has lasted over 40,000 years can go away, like that. You start to see the impacts almost instantly, âshe says.
If temperatures rise, due to the worsening effects of global warming, researchers predict that art will be lost at an even faster rate, some even at risk of disappearing before it can even be discovered in the vast and rugged archipelago.
âAlmost without exception, the paints are exfoliating and in advanced stages of decomposition. We are in a race against time, âAdhi Agus Oktaviana, an Indonesian rock art expert at the National Archaeological Research Center (ARKENAS) said in a statement.
The problem is exacerbated by the rice paddies and aquaculture ponds used by locals to grow food, as they contribute to humidity, evaporation and the amount of water retained in the environment. Industrial development is also seen as a threat.
Experts called for more resources to be able to conduct a regional risk assessment and accelerate their ability to discover and study more works of art.
READ: This town in Java could disappear in 15 years, due to land subsidence and coastal flooding
Local conservation groups have initiated a monitoring program, but landscape-scale mitigation efforts may be needed to safeguard the art. This is difficult when heritage competes with the needs of the local population, such as food security.
“We’re always catching up because we’re just starting to realize how much art exists and how important it is globally,” said Dr Huntley. “We need to come in and document these things as best we can, as quickly as possible.”