Climate change is erasing humanity’s first work of art

First discovered and photographed by anthropologist Franco Viviani, the rock paintings on the island of Sulawesi are vanishing. His shots remain the most valuable evidence of these priceless works.

Because of climate change and pollution, which heavily modify the atmospheric humidity bringing different microorganisms to take root on the walls, the oldest rock paintings in the world are vanishing. Even worse, the works of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, are literally crumbling, putting at risk an artistic heritage over 45 thousand years old.

To denounce it is Franco Viviani, anthropologist and professor at the Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Padua, in the article Finding and Losing the World's Oldest Art in Sulawesi, recently published in the magazine Sapiens. The same researcher had first discovered the primitive paintings in 1985, moreover in a completely random way during an expedition. The decision to report and photograph in detail some rock paintings in a cave has led him to come into contact with what were then declared the oldest human paintings ever - the French-Cantabrian European representations are 40 thousand years ago. His shots are still a very important testimony of the original state of the paintings, since the animal figures and handprints were repainted years after his first expedition, in 2019. To tell it is always the professor in his writing:

Some years ago I realized that the cave I had detected with my companions housed the cave paintings among the oldest in the world, much older than the Franco-Cantabrian ones: when I read this news I jumped on the chair and promised myself to go back there. I then revisited the caves with great excitement, realizing that our finding was very useful, although at the time we were not aware of how old the paintings were, because the cave was repainted, making dating impossible. Fortunately, other caves in the area have been preserved.

Not only, Viviani's photos are very precious also to estimate, today, how quickly the degradation of the works takes place. Works that, on the other hand, prove that in that area there are not only wonderful representations of animals: among the representations it is possible to notice also a so-called therianthrope, that is the representation of a being halfway between an animal and a human. A discovery that could completely change the history of art.

That's why, just to prevent its definitive disappearance and to be able to continue to "dig" in the depths of human culture,

the Griffith University scholars are proceeding to photograph, date and catalog what remains of the priceless Indonesian wall art.

Andrea Guerriero