via Nature, 06 December 2023: In Sulawesi, Indonesia, ancient cave art, some over 45,000 years old, is rapidly deteriorating. Archaeologist Rustan Lebe is documenting this alarming decay, with significant portions of these murals flaking off. Factors contributing to this include local industrial activities, changing microclimates, and climate change impacts. This crisis has led to a collaboration among scientists, archaeologists, and mining companies to mitigate the loss. The article also briefly mentions my involvement in this story in assessing the cement company’s impact on the sites.
“Our big problem now is the peeling of the surface of the rock,” he says. Panels of images that have survived since the middle of the last ice age are flaking off the cave walls at an alarming rate. The hard, crusted surface of the cave walls, on which the ancient people painted, is breaking off from the powdery white limestone underneath in a process called exfoliation.
Archaeologists working in the caves have speculated on the causes. Perhaps it’s the pollution from nearby cars and trucks, the heavy-breathing visitors who change the caves’ microclimate or the changing weather patterns ushered in by climate change. But researchers also wonder whether local industry is at fault, particularly the dust and vibrations produced by mining companies that blast open the karst cliffs, digging for limestone.