Decaying rock paintings from salt erosion are believed to be the oldest in the world

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Rock paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, considered the oldest in the world, are decaying at a rapid rate due to salt erosion likely caused by climate change, archaeologists warn.

Paintings from the Maros-Pangkep region include depictions of a group of therianthropes, or humans with animal characteristics, appearing to hunt animals found in a limestone cave in 2017 and dated to around 44,000 years ago.

Another painting of a warty pig from Sulawesi has recently been dated at least 45,500 years old.

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Experts are now racing against time to find ways to preserve priceless Pleistocene works of art.

“The impact is very serious and will destroy the paintings,” said Basran Burhan, archaeologist from Griffith University in Australia.

This warty pig, which is 137 centimeters long, is part of a scene that includes two other less complete pigs. Photo credit: Maxime Aubert

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

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A prolonged drought combined with heavy monsoon rains created “very favorable” conditions that intensified salt crystallization, according to the study.

“The pigment that makes up the image on the cave wall is peeling off,” archaeologist Rustan Labe said, showing images on his laptop showing the extent of the exfoliation between October 2018 and March 2019.

The photographic documentation showed that almost 1.5 square centimeters had come off during those six months.

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Dr Labe, who works at the Cultural Heritage Conservation Center of Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture, said archaeologists would work in small teams to monitor the growth of salt crystals and other tiny organisms on the cave wall.

“We will prevent and address the factors that could pose a threat and deal with the problem immediately,” Dr Labe said.

-Reuters / UKTN

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