Indigenous rock art has survived tens of thousands of years. But global warming might be the death of it. As extreme weather events like fires, cyclones, floods and erosion intensify, rock art fades and disappears. A report at a recent symposium declared the damage is now irreversible.
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The symposium was held Tuesday at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, spurred by a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the report, the global temperature is likely to rise above the 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement. Expect more extreme, rock art-damaging weather.
Rock art sites are found around the world and consist of paintings, engravings, drawings, stencils, prints and carvings. They’re found inside caves and on boulders, on cliff walls and rocky overhangs. The imagery has lasting aesthetic and spiritual power and can provide insight into the lives of Indigenous groups around the world. Australia and Africa each have at least 100,000 rock art sites, some stretching back 28,000 years. India, China, Siberia, Mexico and France are just a few more of the places where rock art endures.
Dr. Jillian Huntley, an archaeological scientist at Griffith University, studies Australasian rock art. Her focus stretches from Australia up into Indonesia, with an emphasis on Sulawesi. Huntley has noticed that changing weather is making salt crystals expand and contract, causing rocks to collapse. Some of the world’s oldest paintings are threatened.
“Those temperature increases are felt at a rate three times the rest of the world,” Huntley said, as reported by The Guardian. “A 2.4C warming would be a 6C warming in the tropics, which would be absolutely catastrophic.” And there’s no time to wait. “Not net zero by 2050,” she said. “Net zero as soon as possible.”
Natural disasters, weather and climate fluctuations are nothing new. But this time, human technology is rocketing the planet — including its Indigenous rock art — toward disaster. “Today, we’re in sort of a critical situation or critical juncture,” said Daryl Wesley, an archeologist at Flinders who has studied destruction wrought on rock art by one of Australia’s worst tropical cyclones.