Salt Erosion Decaying World’s Oldest Cave Painting at Rapid Pace

A cave painting on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, believed to be the oldest in the world, is deteriorating at a rapid pace due to salt erosion likely caused by climate change, archaeologists warn.

The painting of a group of therianthropes, or people with animal characteristics who appear to be hunting animals, was found in a limestone cave in 2017 and dated almost 44,000 years ago.

Experts are now racing against time to find ways to preserve the priceless work of art from the Pleistocene.

“The impact is very severe and will destroy the paintings,” Basran Burhan, an archaeologist from Griffith University, Australia, told Reuters after inspecting the painting in Maros.

Warming temperatures and the increasing severity of the El Nino events have helped accelerate salt crystallization in the cave and effectively “peel” the painting, according to a study by Australian and Indonesian archaeologists published in Scientific Reports last month.

Persistent drought in combination with heavy monsoon rains created “very favorable” conditions that intensified salt crystallization, according to the study.

“The pigment that makes up the picture on the cave wall is peeling off,” said archaeologist Rustan Labe, pointing to images on his laptop that showed the extent of exfoliation between October 2018 and March 2019. Image documentation showed that 1,36898 square centimeters had flaked off within those six months.

Labe, who works at the Department of Education and Culture’s Heritage Preservation Center, said archaeologists will work in small teams to monitor the growth of salt crystals and other tiny organisms on the cave wall.

“We will prevent and combat the factors that could pose a threat and deal with the matter immediately,” said Rustan.

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