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Next up on climate change's chopping block: cave art

One of the many drawings in Sulawesi chipping away bit by bit.
One of the many drawings in Sulawesi chipping away bit by bit.
Screenshot: Griffith University / Youtube

As the full-scope of what we stand to lose to climate change continues to come into fruition, primitive art has now come into view. Scientists only recently discovered the oldest cave drawings known to man in Sulawesi—an island in Indonesia—and they now see the artifacts “disappearing before [their] eyes.”


Researchers at Australia’s Griffith University recently published a study through Scientific Reports paint a picture of time inevitably running out for these expansive cave drawings.

The oldest artwork, featuring three warty, rotund pigs, surrounded by handprints, dates back over 45,000 years. An increase in the formation of salt crystals rigorously degrade the limestone cave wall, causing the art to chip and fall away. Unlike their European counterparts, higher equatorial temperatures threaten Sulawesi’s cave drawings, a reality that’s only becoming more grim.

“I was gobsmacked by how prevalent the destructive salt crystals and their chemistry were on the rock art panels, some of which we know to be more than 40,000 years old,” said study lead Dr. Jillian Huntley. “In my opinion, degradation of this incredible rock art is set to worsen the higher global temperatures climb.”

The pigs are only one of many sketches and illustrations at risk of disappearing completely, and with it, a connection to our ancient ancestors. Other drawings in these caves depict scenes ranging from hunting scenes to supernatural beings. These drawing are an exposition of how Sulawesi people connected to their land and like us with photos, felt the need to document the world around them.

The importance of their existence is not lost on Sulawesian archaeologist and Griffith scholar Basran Burhan.

“Cave art discoveries are revealing more and more about how advanced the cultural lives of the first peoples living in Sulawesi were. Detailed paintings of animals, hand stencils and narrative scenes of great antiquity show that people have been connected to this place for tens of thousands of years,” he said.

Gabrielle is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club and most recently worked at Vulture. A native Texan, her interests include Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Carly Rae Jepsen, and any sitcom series.