Monday, December 30, 2019

3299. The Quiet Disappearance of Birds in North America

By Ed Yong, The Atlantic, September 19, 2019

In the early afternoon of September 1, 1914, Martha the passenger pigeon, the last of her kind in the world, passed away, and her entire species disappeared with her. But before that instant of extinction, there had been decades of decline, as hunters killed what was once the most common bird in the world. Billions of passenger pigeons became millions, thousands, and then hundreds, until eventually one became none. Few people took note of this decline as it happened: There still seemed to be a lot of pigeons, and their abundance obscured their downfall.

History is now repeating itself—across the entire avian world.
A new study, which analyzed decades of data on North American birds, estimates that the continent’s bird populations have fallen by 29 percent since 1970. That’s almost 3 billion fewer individuals than there used to be, five decades ago. “It’s a staggering result,” says Kenneth Rosenberg from Cornell University and the American Bird Conservancy, who led the analysis.
“This is a critically important study,” says Nicole Michel, an ecologist at the National Audubon Society. Past work has shown that specific groups of birds are declining, but this is the first study to rigorously put a number on the full extent of these losses. And surprisingly, it shows that the most ubiquitous birds have been the hardest hit. “The common wisdom was that we’d see the rare and threatened species disappearing and the common, human-adapted ones taking over,” Rosenberg says. Instead, his team found that 90 percent of the missing birds came from just 12 families, and that they were all familiar, perchy, cheepy things such as sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, finches, larks, starlings, and swallows.

About 19 species have each lost more than 50 million individuals. Seemingly ubiquitous species such as the red-winged blackbird are at risk. The dark-eyed junco, a type of sparrow and one of the most common sights at bird feeders, is in trouble. Even birds that humans successfully introduced to this continent—such as the house sparrow and European starling, which are famed for their adaptability—are in trouble. “If we can’t even keep introduced species in healthy populations, that could be a stronger indicator that the environment is unhealthy,” Rosenberg says. It’s as if all birds are canaries, and the entire world their coal mine.
As with the passenger pigeon, abundance obscures decline. The fact that 24 million eastern meadowlarks still survive hides the fact that 74 million have gone. “There are still a lot of birds out there,” Rosenberg says. “If you have a lot of birds coming to your feeder and they’re reduced by 30 percent, you might not see that. This loss of abundance can be happening right under our noses.”
With this great emptying of the skies, there are now 3 billion fewer beaks to snap up insects, and 3 billion fewer pairs of wings for moving nutrients, pollen, and seeds through the world. We haven’t just lost birds, but all the things that birds do, “as well as our connection to what is arguably one of the most widely cherished forms of wildlife on the planet,” says Kristen Ruegg from Colorado State University. “Our forests and backyards will continue to grow quieter with every passing year, and within that leftover space there is an opportunity for complacency about the natural world to grow.”
A broader pattern of “biological annihilation” is coming into focus, too. A third of backboned species on land, for example, are also declining, including many that are deemed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to be of “least concern.” Insects might also be in trouble, although fears of an insect apocalypse are hard to judge because there’s very little long-term data on insect populations.
The opposite is true for birds, which are conspicuous, beloved, and heavily watched by both amateur enthusiasts and professional researchers. There’s long-term survey data aplenty, and Rosenberg’s team collected as much as it could for 529 species, covering most major groups. “The data sets they used provide probably the best long-term, large-scale information on species abundances for any group of organisms anywhere in the world,” says Natalie Wright from Kenyon College. “There’s always uncertainty. But if they are wrong, they are likely underestimating the magnitude of population declines.”
Rosenberg’s team also used data from a weather-radar network to show that the number of birds migrating through America’s nighttime skies has fallen by 14 percent since 2007. That’s important. The radar not only provides another line of evidence, independent of the more traditional surveys, but picks up species that those surveys miss, such as Arctic-breeding shorebirds. It “increases our confidence that these declines are really happening,” Michel says.

The new study is silent on the causes of these declines—that’s what Rosenberg’s team will look at next. But it’s widely accepted that “habitat loss and degradation are the largest forces behind the decline of birds,” Rosenberg says. The fact that grassland birds have suffered more than those in other habitats attests to this problem. As wild prairie has been converted into agricultural land, invaded by non-native plants, and flooded with harmful pesticides, 700 million local birds have disappeared, and three-quarters of bird species are going downhill.
It’s hard to estimate exactly how many birds are dying due to habitat loss, or from other potential dangers such as pesticide use, the disappearance of insect prey, or climate change. Other threats are easier to quantify, and the biggest of these, by some margin, is domestic cats, which kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds every year. Window collisions claim 600 million bird lives a year, vehicles take out 214 million, power lines are responsible for killing 32 million, and the lights of industrial towers fatally distract about 6 million. Wind turbines are often cited as a problem for birds, and while they should be placed carefully to protect migratory species, their effect is comparatively small; for every bird killed by a wind turbine, thousands are killed by a cat.
“Being able to tie any one of these drivers to the decline of a particular species or group is difficult,” Rosenberg says. “Cumulatively, they’re all important.”
The organizations behind the new study have compiled a list of seven personal actions that people can take to protect North America’s remaining birds:
1) Make windows safer with products that prevent collisions.
2) Keep cats indoors (or walk them on a leash).
3) Choose native plants instead of lawns, to offer food and resting places for migrants.
4) Avoid pesticides.
5) Choose bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee that’s grown on farms that preserve bird habitat.
6) Reduce the use of plastics, and especially single-use plastics.
7) Watch birds and report what you see to help scientists track the surviving populations.
Ultimately, it will take political will and action to refill the emptied skies—and there’s precedent for such reversals of fate. The number of raptors (hawks, eagles, and their kin) has doubled since the 1970s, thanks to a ban on the pesticide DDT and hunting restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, waterfowl such as ducks and geese have increased in number by 56 percent, after hunters lobbied for legislation to protect wetland areas. These success stories show that “when people band together and take action, it is possible to reverse population declines and bring species back from the brink,” Michel says. “Birds are down, but they’re not out. When you give them half a chance, they can recover.”

But Donald Trump’s administration has recently moved to gut the most important bird-conservation law in the United States: the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This proposal would absolve companies of responsibility for millions of incidental bird deaths, and hold them accountable only for purposeful killings, which are negligible. “This is the absolute worst time to be weakening protections,” Rosenberg says.
No one hunts the sparrow, he notes, but bird lovers are so numerous that they could form a constituency to match the political clout the hunting lobby used to save waterfowl. “We need to raise our voices,” Rosenberg says.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

3298. Cuba the Most Sustainably Developed Country in the World, New Research Finds

By Matt Trinder, Morning Star, November 29, 2019
Workers in an organic farm in Cuba.
Cuba is the most sustainably developed country in the world, according to a new report launched today.
The socialist island outperforms advanced capitalist countries including Britain and the United States, which has subjected Cuba to a punitive six-decades-long economic blockade.
The Sustainable Development Index (SDI), designed by anthropologist and author Dr Jason Hickel, calculates its results by dividing a nation’s “human development” score, obtained by looking at statistics on life expectancy, health and education, by its “ecological overshoot,” the extent to which the per capita carbon footprint exceeds Earth’s natural limits.
Countries with strong human development and a lower environmental impact score highly, but countries with poorer life expectancies and literacy rates as well as those which exceed ecological limits are marked down.
Based on the most recent figures, from 2015, Cuba is top with a score of 0.859, while Venezuela is 12th and Argentina 18th.
The SDI was created to update the Human Development Index (HDI), developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and used by the United Nations Development Programme to produce its annual reports since 1990.
The HDI considers life expectancy, education and gross national income per capita, but ignores environmental degradation caused by the economic growth of top performers such as Britain and the US.
“These countries are major contributors to climate change and other forms of ecological breakdown, which disproportionately affects the poorer countries of the global South, where climate change is already causing hunger rates to rise,” Mr Hickel said.
“In this sense, the HDI promotes a model of development that is empirically incompatible with ecology and which embodies a fundamental contradiction: achieving high development according to HDI means driving de-development elsewhere in the world. For a development indicator that purports to be universal, such a contradiction is indefensible.”
Britain, ranked 14th in 2018’s HDI, falls to 131st in the SDI, while the US, 13th in the ul Haq index, is 159th out of 163 countries featured in the new system.
Mr Hickel added: “The SDI ranking reveals that all countries are still “developing” – countries with the highest levels of human development still need to significantly reduce their ecological impact, while countries with the lowest levels of ecological impact still need to significantly improve their performance on social indicators.”
The SDI is available at

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

3297. California's Crashing Kelp Forest

By Science Daily, October 21, 2019
Kelp forests are home to many sea species
First the sea stars wasted to nothing. Then the purple urchins took over, eating and eating until the bull kelp forests were gone. The red abalone starved. Their fishery closed. Red sea urchins starved. Their fishery collapsed. And the ocean kept warming.
It sounds like an ecological horror movie, but this scenario actually happened between 2013 and 2017. Its lasting impacts continue to affect northern California's coast today, with another marine heatwave forecast for this winter.
In a study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife use two decades of kelp ecosystem monitoring data to chronicle the catastrophic shift in 2014 from a robust bull kelp forest to a barren of purple sea urchins. Similar impacts are being observed in kelp forests from Baja California to Alaska.
Uncharted Territory
The study shows how bull kelp deforestation triggered the closure of a $44 million recreational abalone fishery and the collapse of the north coast commercial red sea urchin fishery.
More than 90 percent of bull kelp and 96 percent of red abalone were lost along 217 miles of northern California coastline within just a few years. Meanwhile, purple sea urchin populations exploded 60-fold between 2014 and 2015.
"We're in the 20th year of this monitoring program, and we can confidently say, this is uncharted territory that we're in," said lead author Laura Rogers-Bennett, an environmental scientist with UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and California Department of Fish and Wildlife operating out of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. "We've never seen purple sea urchins at these densities before. This paper really shows what it takes in terms of multiple stressors to crash a bull kelp forest."
The Perfect Storm
The bull kelp ecosystem surveys reveal the timing and magnitude of a series of events -- what the study authors call a "perfect storm" -- that led to the unprecedented decline of the kelp forest and the animals, plants and ecological benefits it supports:
  • 2013: Sea star wasting disease killed mass numbers of sea stars, a purple sea urchin predator.
  • 2014-2017: A marine heatwave and El Nino event warmed the nearshore ocean.
  • 2015: Purple sea urchin populations exploded.
  • 2017: Mass mortalities of red abalone led to that fishery's closure in 2018 to the present.
'They're Eating Absolutely Everything'
Purple sea urchins are native to California's coast, but typically at low densities.
"What we're seeing now are millions and millions of purple sea urchins, and they're eating absolutely everything," said Rogers-Bennett. "They can eat through all the anemones, the sponge, all the kelp, the fleshy red algae. They're even eating through calcified alga and sand."
Bull kelp are one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, capable of growing two feet in just a day. If cooler water temperatures return, kelp could likely regrow, the study said. But with ravenous purple sea urchin teeth constantly scraping the bottom of the sea floor, the kelp cannot catch a break.
Urchins are edible. Their fleshy insides -- specifically, their gonads -- turn up on sushi rolls as uni. So perhaps a purple sea urchin harvest is in order? Not so fast. With so much competition from their brethren, the insides of these urchins are nearly empty. They are starving.
Urchin Ranching and a Glimmer of Hope
In what could be a glimmer of hope for bull kelp forests, UC Davis researchers are working with Bay Area shellfish company Urchinomics to explore the possibility of removing purple urchins from their sea floor barrens and fattening them up for market -- in short, urchin ranching.
If the resulting product gives kelp beds a chance to recover, dining on purple urchin could go beyond "sustainable seafood" to become restorative. Rogers-Bennett and UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory Director Gary Cherr will begin trials this fall to see if urchin ranching could be a viable strategy.
Other strategies are outlined in the Sonoma-Mendocino Bull Kelp Recovery Plan, released last June by the Greater Farallones Association and CDFW. It includes measures such as creating a kelp oasis to preserve seed stock and repopulate bull kelp when conditions are conducive to restoration.
"There are too many purple urchins, and the kelp forest is in giant trouble," said Rogers-Bennett. "There are all kinds of problems associated with that. But we are working now on some of the potential solutions."
Meanwhile, this study illustrates the vulnerability of ecosystems and communities to climate-driven collapses.
The study was coauthored by Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with the CDFW and research associate of UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory at the time of the study.

Friday, December 20, 2019

3296. Ovid: a Netflix for the Left

By Louis Proyect, Counterpunch, December 20, 2019

After reading the reviews below, you’d likely agree that Ovid is an invaluable resource for the left. Launched on March 22, it aggregates films from eight different cutting edge film distributors, including some whose documentaries and narrative films I have reviewed over the years: First Run, Bullfrog, and Icarus. These are the kinds of films that show up in art houses like the Cinema Village in NY or the Laemmle in Los Angeles but generally for a week or less. They may show up on Amazon or iTunes, but you will never get a head’s up as you would if you were an Ovid subscriber. The main benefit of subscribing for $6.99 per month (a real pittance) is the convenience of having an intelligently organized website that categorizes films geared to its intended audience. While Netflix groups film by genres such as horror or crime, Ovid groups them, for example, by “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” In that category, you can find “No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism,” “Eugene V. Debs: American Socialist,” and the 1967 groundbreaking documentary “Far From Vietnam.” In addition to such radical documentaries, you will find avant-garde narrative films from Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and Marcel Ophüls. So, don’t hesitate. Ovid is the Netflix the left has always needed, supporting evidence from the reviews beneath:
1. Stopover
Co-directed by Delphine and Muriel Coulin, this 2016 French narrative film is a white-hot drama about a platoon of French soldiers who spend three days at a five-star hotel in Cyprus before returning home from Afghanistan. The goal of the all-expenses-paid voir du pays (stopover) is decompression, a way of avoiding the bends by returning to France prematurely.
The military brass wisely calculates that a goodly portion of the troops is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. If they punch out a Cypriot or a vacationing European, that’s better than if the victim was a French citizen. On the first day, we see tension mounting as the soldiers have trouble feeling comfortable around rich kids on a Club Med type vacation, especially after they’ve had one drink too many. That includes Marine (Soko), a tightly-coiled female soldier who picks a fight with a hulking bartender who does not respond quickly enough to her request for a refill.
Besides Marine, two other women have joined the army mostly for economic reasons rather than to defend Europe from al Qaeda. In the small town they both lived in, there were neither jobs nor men who would make a suitable mate. From early on, you understand that none of their fellow soldiers would be a possible match since they are sexist to the core. The testosterone-filled racism that drew them to kill Afghans went hand in hand with seeing the three women as fresh meat.
Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Fanny (Ginger Romàn) keep a watchful eye on Marine, who the Taliban badly wounded in a firefight during their tour of duty. They try to entice her into the hotel’s hedonistic pursuits, but most of the time she sits away from both the soldiers and the guests, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the sea.
The brass leads a kind of group therapy that will aid in the decompression process. They meet in a hotel conference room and take turns going to the front of the room to use virtual reality goggles for reenacting the battle with the Taliban that cost several lives. The troops regard this as a pointless exercise but know better than to duck them. In every instance, we see the participants begin to demonstrate PTSD symptoms as they relive the experience.
On their second day at the hotel, a couple of Cypriot men persuade Aurore and Fanny to take a ride with them to see the sites in the Greek-controlled part of the island. Just before they are leaving, Marine insists on coming along since she senses that the men might have predatory intentions just like the soldiers. Instead of taking them to historical sites or picturesque villages, they end up at the barbed-wire fence that separates them from the Turkish half of Cyprus. Beyond the fence, it is “no man’s land” according to a sign. Within minutes, a car pulls up with four of the soldiers who end up as rivals to the Cypriots in the same that the Greeks are rivals with the Turks. Except, they are vying not over land but female flesh.
Winner of the best screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Stopover” is a powerful film that deals with the same issues that #metoo took on but within a context that was missing from a movement targeting corporate bigwigs. In an interview with No Film School, a brilliantly named website, they answer a question about rape in the military: “We have gained some things in terms of equality for women. At the same time, you cannot be alone in feeling equal. These girls went in the army because they thought that they were equals with men and they could do the same jobs. But if the other people—the men—don’t think you’re equal, then it’s pointless.”
2. Anthropocene
This documentary should be required viewing from everybody involved in the ecosocialist movement. It points to the inevitable ties between environmental science and the need for a revolution. Structured around interviews with scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group, it makes the case that we are no longer in the Holocene epoch but in the Anthropocene that began around 11,000 years ago when human beings began to develop agriculture and form class societies. One of the film’s startling revelations is how rice cultivation led to the warming of the planet. Like the burping cows, it releases methane into the atmosphere.
The Anthropocene school theorizes the beginning of the epoch as coinciding with the inventions of two men that changed the world. James Watt’s steam engine provided the energy that made modern manufacturing and transportation possible. Ironically, one of its earliest functions was to drain water from coal mines in England through steam-driven machinery that operated in a perfect feedback loop. More coal produced more steam engines that then produced more coal.
The other breakthrough came from a German scientist whose name might not be familiar to you: Fritz Haber. Haber developed a method for synthesizing ammonia out of nitrogen in the atmosphere. This technique made chemical fertilizers possible and hence the possibility of unrestrained agricultural production. In the early stages of the Anthropocene that the scientists liken to our impetuous teenage years, governments saw this as a perfect way in a Trumpian sense to feed a hungry world. However, agricultural expansion led to deforestation that continues unabated to this day, as evidenced by Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon rainforest.
Without mentioning the word degrowth, the scientists conclude that humanity has to learn to live within geological limits, or we will become extinct just as surely as the dinosaurs. As grim as this subject matter seems, there is a mordant sense of humor shown throughout the documentary as we see footage of post-WWII films about what miracles fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers were. When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, he must have in mind the kind of futuristic newsreels I saw in the late 1950s when gasoline was twenty-cents a gallon and Atoms for Peace was in vogue. While most people recognize that Trump is a psychopath, it is far scarier to consider that a majority of America’s ruling class probably agrees with him.
3. The Chicago Boys
Like “Anthropocene,” this is a most timely documentary. Made by Chileans, it is an eye-opening study of the Catholic University economics students who were admitted into the University of Chicago in 1955 to soak up the wisdom of Milton Friedman. Mostly harmless as academic figures, they became Pinochet’s henchmen after he took power. As one of these Friedman acolytes put it in the film, they had to wean him away from statism. He derided the Chilean military’s belief in the need to control all aspects of the economy (keep in mind that General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, a two-time president of Chile, began the nationalization of the country’s copper mines.) But once Pinochet saw the light, he made sure to torture, kill, or disappear anybody who questioned neoliberalism.
One wonders how these economists could have no idea how gruesome they would appear to anybody outside of the Milton Friedman cult. Listening to Sergio de Castro, who was Pinochet’s chief economic adviser and a Friedman student, is like listening to Goebbels’s secretary Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2016 at the age of 106. She insisted that “we knew nothing” about Hitler’s atrocities. Like her, de Castro said he knew nothing about how 40,000 people suffered death, torture or disappearance under Pinochet. He was “too busy” with economic matters. The net effect of listening to him and other of these Chicago boys is similar to those Spaniards who still believed in General Franco, as documented in the film “The Silence of Others.”
Besides de Castro, we hear from Rolf Lüders, who says that inequality is not a problem, only poverty. Those who resent inequality are only guilty of envy. Lüders is unaware that there is both poverty and inequality in Chile. The protests that have shaken the country to its core this year are proof of that.
Now 95, Arnold Harberger was one of the main arteries between the youth at Catholic University and the mother-ship in Chicago. Like the others, he sees their role as benign even if it took murder to make it possible. He smiles and says that the proof of their uplifting role is the continuation of neoliberal policies even under democratic governments. Like Lüders, he shows no understanding of why people are now in the streets demanding change against any government on the right or on the center-left.
Give credit to directors Carola Fuentes and Rafael Valdeavellano for being canny enough to get these economists to hang themselves on their own petard. Of course, it is likely that even if they saw this film, they still wouldn’t get how evil they appear to ordinary people. That’s what makes “The Chicago Boys” so compelling.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

3295. Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans

By Becky Ferrira, The New York Times, December 11, 2019
Credit...Ratno Sardi
In December 2017, Hamrullah, an archaeologist on an Indonesian government survey, was exploring a cave system in Sulawesi, a large island in central Indonesia. He noticed a tantalizing opening in the ceiling above him. A skilled spelunker, Hamrullah (who only uses one name, like many Indonesians) climbed through the gap into an uncharted chamber. There, he laid eyes on a painting that is upending our understanding of prehistoric humans.

The dramatic panel of art, dating back at least 43,900 years, is “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world,” a group of scientists said in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, although additional research will be needed to confirm the age of every character in the painting.

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.

Given that these extraordinary characters are wielding thin objects that might represent ropes or spears, the painting may be an artistic demonstration of a game drive, a hunting strategy that involves guiding animals toward an ambush.

The otherworldly nature of the therianthropes also raises the possibility that they are mythical beings, or manifestations of “animal spirit helpers” that are common in shamanic beliefs, according to the study.

“This scene may not be a depiction of an actual hunting scene but could be about animistic beliefs and the relationship between people and animals, or even a shamanic ritual,” said Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University who was not involved in the study.

These interpretations are speculative, however, and the original inspiration for the painting, as well as its significance to the humans who created it, is likely to remain a mystery.

The rock art predates the next oldest representation of a character with a mix of human and animal figures, found in a cave in Germany, by about 4,000 years. It is also more than 20,000 years older than a hunting scene on the walls of France’s Lascaux Cave.

Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and one of the study’s authors, said his team was “completely blown away” by the painting.
“We had never seen anything even remotely like this before in the hundreds of cave art sites we’d documented” on this Indonesian island, Dr. Brumm said.

“I immediately knew it was special and that it would be a very important site to understand the cognitive evolution of our species,” said Maxime Aubert, a co-author also at Griffith.

The scene is inside the Maros-Pangkep limestone cave system on the island’s southwestern end, which has been a hot spot for archaeologists since the 1950s. Local people in the region were likely aware of the paintings long before that time, however. A modern custom of marking wooden posts with a handprint may even have “some connection with local observations of prehistoric hand stencils in nearby caves,” Dr. Brumm said.

The scientists determined the painting’s age by performing uranium-series dating on “cave popcorn,” or mineral deposits that hang over three of the animal motifs in the scene. That gave it an age of at least 43,900 years old, and possibly older.

“This finding is very significant because it was previously thought that figurative painting dated to a time shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe, perhaps circa 40,000 years ago, but this result shows it has an origin outside Europe,” said Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England, who was not involved in the study.

However, Dr. Pike considered it “very premature” to claim that the scene represents the earliest example of such storytelling, because only the animals in the scene have been definitively dated. It’s possible that the therianthropes, a vital part of the narrative, were added later.

Dr. Aubert said his team thinks the therianthropes were likely painted at the same time as the animal motifs because “they are of the same tone of red and are in a similar state of preservation.”

Very little is known about the people who originally decorated the walls of Maros-Pangkep in red pigment, in part because none of their skeletal remains have been found in the caves. They may have been related to a group of modern humans that migrated to Australia more than 50,000 years ago.

Despite these unresolved mysteries, it is now abundantly clear that these humans were storytellers whose abstract paintings shed light into the origins of human cognition and spirituality.

“Images of therianthropes often have complex meanings in modern religions and folklore,” said Dr. Brumm, who gave the examples of werewolves and the animal-headed deities of ancient Egypt.

“While we can’t know if this was the case in Sulawesi at least 44,000 years ago, we can point to these enigmatic images of therianthropes as the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings,” he said, which is “a cornerstone of religious belief and experience.”

Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the study, suggested that the painting could have implications for understanding humanity’s “unique capacity to communicate using intricate language.”

“It also hints at high order cognitive processes such as language and elaborate artwork emerging fairly recently in evolution,” Dr. Miyagawa said.

The painting has galvanized archaeologists to continue mapping the vast, unexplored reaches of the Maros-Pangkep caves, where the art is fading, “at an alarming rate” for unknown reasons, Dr. Aubert said.

These imaginative landscapes adorned Sulawesi’s caves for 44 millenniums, but they could vanish soon after they were rediscovered. At this point, they are the only link to this early culture that dreamed up fantastic beings and visualized the thrill of the chase — two activities that still preoccupy humans today.

“We also need to understand why it is deteriorating so rapidly and maybe we will find ways to save it,” Dr. Aubert said.