Out of Africa

There is a new paper out in the American Journal of Human Genetics, in which the authors try to determine the path by which modern humans left Africa – basically, through the Sinai Peninsula into the Levant,  or crossing the Bab el Mandeb strait (very narrow in glacial times) into Yemen.  Life is probably somewhat more complicated than this question suggests, since there were probably at least two expansions out of Africa ( judging from those mysterious Basal Eurasians) and maybe more, but the question itself is not an unreasonable one.

They try to see which population – Egyptians or Ethiopians – is genetically closer to  Eurasians. That sounds nuts, since both populations have had massive genetic inputs from Eurasians, but they try to identify and mask the Eurasian components of the genome  and compare the residual genomes.  Nuts is maybe too strong a word here, but that strategy (assuming that you can implement it correctly) is extremely dubious, because it implicitly assumes that, prior to relatively recent Eurasian gene flow , the locals have been sitting in the same place – without being replaced (or mostly replaced) by a different population – for  sixty or seventy thousand years.  In the regions where we have good information (parts of Eurasia, from ancient DNA) this never happened. Eurasians are like ogres – multiple layers of ancestry.

They talk about Ethiopian genetics. They say that highland Ethiopians like the Amhara are about 50% Middle Eastern, Somalis 30-40% Middle Eastern, but almost no Eurasian ancestry in the Gumuz (a Nilotic people that speak a (probably) Nilo-Saharan language). So they use Gumuz samples for their  comparison..  But since the Nilo-Saharan expansion is thought to be recent (a few thousand years), and to have originated in the eastern Sudan, the odds are strongly against the Gumuz having been sitting in place in Ethiopia  for the last 70,000 years.  I don’t think the Gumuz are  a good proxy for ancient Ethiopians – they look like recent immigrants from the Sudan.  They live pretty close to the Sudanese border now, and used to be closer. There may well be people in Ethiopia that have some local hunter-gatherer ancestry (there are indications of this) but the Gumuz are probably not among them. And, even then, it’s unlikely that those hunter gatherers  are a good proxy for Horn-of-Africa types from 70,000 years ago.

But their treatment of Egypt is far worse. They find that Egyptians are about 80% Eurasian – which means Middle Eastern mostly, and sounds about right. They estimate that the time of admixture (between Middle Eastern and African ancestry) was around 750 years years ago, which also sounds about right. But from what they actually say in the paper, it sure sounds as if they think that Egypt was sub-Saharan-type African until the Arab conquest ! Someone bleached all the mummies!

In fact, Egypt was settled by Middle Eastern type farmers maybe 7000 years ago (later than the Balkans) , who brought in all the standard crops, and most of that sub-Saharan component arrived after the Arab conquest, through the slave trade.

But crazy as it sounds, they must think that the black African ancestry in Egypt is old while the Eurasian ancestry is new, else there is no point at all in what they are doing.  They have it backwards.

Now those Middle Eastern farmers settling Egypt (speaking something in the Hamito-Semitic family) must have encountered some kind of hunter-gatherers living in the Nile Valley, and there’s likely some genetic trace of that. But it’s probably not very big,  and for all I know their genetics looked Eurasian as well ( looking at the Berbers, for example).  To have any chance of figuring this out you probably need to sequence mummies, if that can be done.

The idea that Egypt of the pharaohs was genetically African – by which they mean in practice sub-Saharan Africa – is lunacy. The sub-Saharan component in the Egyptians is mostly pretty new –  from the Arab slave trade, a lot of it from Nubia. In fact, that’s what it says in one of their references on this, in the abstract even:  “a migration of individuals with Nilotic ancestry into  (my emphasis) Egypt occurred about 25 generations ago (approximately 750 ya).”

Some of that Nubian ancestry is probably a bit older –  the Pharaohs hired Nubian mercenaries back in New Kingdom days – but still, nothing like ancient.

I’ve been complaining about  researchers being too narrow.  This article is a spectacular example. But it’s not just the lead author: everyone whose name is on the paper must be assumed to be equally ignorant and incurious – as well as the reviewers, and editors, and for that matter anyone who doesn’t stay up all night laughing at them.

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73 Responses to Out of Africa

  1. chris langan says:


    What do you think about that ?

    And what do you think about the fact that Egypt was invaded, in her last days, by “white people” like greek, persians etc…

    Sorry for the english.

  2. dearieme says:

    “They have it backwards.” They have it arse-about-face, as we used to say. I am ever more amused at people, claiming to be some sort of scientists, who seem to know less than we did in our early years at secondary school. Whatever happened to Western civilisation? Whatever happened to the schools? Whatever happened to science?

    My guess on the last question is that the ever more bureaucratised, managerialised, money-grubbing world of academic science, with its years of credential-gathering while working on other people’s problems, repels from science more and more of those clever young people who are also high-spirited, inquisitive and even mildly impatient. It might also repel them if they have high moral standards; witnessing the success of the slimiest would be hard for some people to bear. I can’t imagine the young me entering academic life as it is presently constituted.

  3. Ilya says:

    Dr. Cochran: I remember reading about Kiffians in the Dienekes page (http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2008/08/kiffians-and-tenerians-from-sahara.html). Are these likely to be hunter-gatherers of a Eurasian, backmigration origin or of a more native, in situ sort?

    Concerning Sahara, I know that the it used to be a very productive ecosystem between 12KYA and 5KYA, but not much more (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/05/080508-green-sahara.html)

  4. Matt says:

    Greg: a lot of it from Nubia

    Seems like it must by majorly predominantly from East Africa in one form or another.

    When you look at the FSTs in their supplement for the Eurasian masked population, the masked Egyptian African component isn’t really closer to the West African Yoruba than the other East African populations are.

    Masked Egyptian to YRI is 0.018 vs masked Somali to YRI 0.020.

    (The FST scores, masked and unmasked, do look strange though – the Eurasian CEU and CHB FSTs to YRI seem too low relative to East Africa-YRI, while it is clear the masking process exaggerates separation from CEU.).

    The masked ADMIXTURE likewise results show the African in Egyptian to be almost absolutely of the same component as the African in East Africans. Central and West African slavery (really slavery further afield than Sudan and the Horn) really must play almost no role in the formation of the modern Egyptian gene pool.

  5. Bla says:

    “Some of that Nubian ancestry is probably a bit older – the Pharaohs hired Nubian mercenaries back in New Kingdom days – but still, nothing like ancient.”
    I would guess 25th Dynasty to be responsible for most of older Nubian ancestry.

  6. indravaruna says:

    The Berbers of North Africa are very white, one Berber Prince, Lucius Quietus was cavalary commander in the Roman Army in the 2nd century, he putted down a massive jewish Revolt in North Africa.

  7. eurogenes says:

    Yeah, nice one. Totally in agreement.

    By the way, did you see that paper on the Kalash from a few weeks ago? It’s just as bad. I wrote a little bit on it…


    11,800 years of isolation in the Hindu Kush they said. What a bunch of clowns.

    I can’t believe this sort of crap gets through peer review in these journals.

  8. I’m just a total layperson, and even I have some vague, fuzzy notion of what the pictures on the walls of Egyptian tombs look like, probably from watching TV shows about Egypt as a kid. What TV shows were these guys watching?

  9. Paul Conroy says:

    I’m a betting man and I still favor an Ethiopian entry point, not Egyptian.

    One of the reasons is by examining my own Irish DNA, which in some analyses showed about 1% “Red Sea” and in another showed about 1.5% “Ari Blacksmith”, now in an afrocentric analysis, called “puntDNAL K10+Eurasia Admixture” on GedMatch.com I get some Omotic and Nilo Saharan – all pointing to Ethiopia!

    Admix Results (sorted):

    # Population Percent
    1 Indo_European 85.57
    2 Western_Semitic 7.68
    3 Dravidian 4.2
    4 Amerindian 1.36
    5 Omotic 0.86
    6 Nilo_Saharan 0.33

    Using 4 populations approximation:
    1 Georgian + Lithuanian + Utahn_Whites + Utahn_Whites @ 1.163697
    2 French + Lithuanian + Lithuanian + North_European @ 1.330277
    3 Basque + Lithuanian + Lithuanian + North_European @ 1.412409
    4 Lithuanian + Lithuanian + Tuscan + Utahn_Whites @ 1.430693
    5 Basque + Lithuanian + Lithuanian + Lithuanian @ 1.442787
    6 Lithuanian + Lithuanian + South_European + Utahn_Whites @ 1.568690
    7 Basque + Belarussian + Lithuanian + Lithuanian @ 1.641678
    8 Iranian + Utahn_Whites + Utahn_Whites + Utahn_Whites @ 1.691440
    9 French + French + Lithuanian + Utahn_Whites @ 1.727816
    10 Caucasian + Lithuanian + Utahn_Whites + Utahn_Whites @ 1.798047

  10. Paul Conroy says:

    Here’s an interesting paper on the Horn of Africa:

    “Early Back-to-Africa Migration into the Horn of Africa”

    It has some nice charts and graphs, such as Figure 2 – check out the distribution of the “Maghrebi” component, in North Africa and Southern Europe as expected, but surprisingly in Central Europe, all the way up to Sweden too!


    • Paul Conroy says:

      tl;dr – Basically the article shows that the “Ari Blacksmith” component is almost entirely “Ethiopic” and thus would be a good representative for Native Ethiopian, not the Gumuz, as stated above.

  11. John Hostetler says:

    Melanizing the ancient Egyptians has always been a key goal of the Afrocentrist agenda for the forty-odd years it has inflicted itself on America’s schools, because that would link SSA to one of the great, founding civilizations; moreover, one that strongly influenced early European civilization via Crete

    But Greg, if you think Afrocentric nonsense has escaped its confines among the usual blank slate idiots and has begun to pollute even genetics journals, wouldn’t it be better to just say so?

    • gcochran9 says:

      I don’t think Afrocentrism is much more than a joke. It doesn’t have much presence outside the US – and none of the authors of that paper are from the US.

      I think that they just don’t know anything outside their field. This is actually fairly common, I believe.

      • John Hostetler says:

        OK, but then the question becomes this: how has the default assumption of educated Europeans, eg many of the authors of this paper, changed from the common sense approach that you and I grew up with – the ancient Egyptians looked pretty much like the people that are there now – to the Afrocentric position?

        Scientists may
        Be blinkered as you say
        But that’s no excuse
        To ignore Marcuse.

        • Matt says:

          I don’t think the authors really believe that admixture first happened in Egypt 750bp or that this was the first movement of Eurasian like ancestry into Egypt, nor that there weren’t subsequent movements from Africa.

          It is more a case of presenting something which they don’t really believe ( or know is a simplification) because it is what they can publish and because they hope it captures some of what they hope to find. which has been going on for years with models of serial founder effect with no later admixture and is now more noticeable because of data to the contrary (but has always been critiqued by for example John Hawks).

          • John Hostetler says:

            So our positions would appear to be something like this:

            Greg: ‘Most people are idiots, and scientists are no different. Beyond their narrow ken, even when it comes to knowledge foundational for their field, they just happen to to believe stupid things, and the patterns of their stupidity are more-or-less random.’

            Matt: ‘Those same scientists are at least smart enough to know which side of their bread is buttered.’

            Me: ‘That butter was spread in way that is far from random and that enhances the belief system imposed by those who hold power in our society. The scientists may be narrow-minded fools, but their interests and beliefs were constructed for them by people who were anything but.’

            Note the hierarchy of subtlety.

  12. MawBTS says:

    If the Ancient Egyptians were SSA then Ramesses II pulled a funny joke by being born with red hair.

    • eurogenes says:

      Mummies often have red hair, even those from South America. It’s due to some sort of post-mortem chemical reaction.

      • MawBTS says:

        In Ramesses II’s case they found high levels of pheomelanin in his hair, indicating that it was his natural colour. Apparently he also dyed it red, probably because it had gone gray in his old age.

  13. Tarl says:

    Yeah but there was that Michael Jackson video with Eddie Murphy where they were ancient Egyptians.

  14. Jacob says:

    It seems plausible that the Ancient Egyptians had more SSA admixture than analysis of mummies would show; you had to be fairly upper class to be mummified, and apart from the mercenaries GC mentioned, if Nilotic people were coming north to labor in the Egyptian empire (probably easier then, when South Egypt was a more hospitable climate) they were likely not the ones getting mummified.

    Also, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/ImJ-d4-oR8a7_Vw-Ty0j1g

    • epoch2013 says:

      I’d rather would think it the other way around. Pharaohs had large harems with women married for political reasons. Since pharaonic Egypt was deeply involved in Nubia and more south you’d expect Nubian princesses. Local villages however married local. We have excellent insight in Egyptian village life via the ostraca found in Deir el Medina, the village where the decoraters of the Egyptian royal tombs lived. These were exceptional in the aspect that they, being the decorators, could write and thus wrote down everything that happened in that village.

      • Jacob says:

        Maybe…in the long run we’ll have more insight into the genetic characteristics of ancient Egyptians than of almost any other ancient peoples, because of mummification. On the other hand, it would be interesting to get a sample of people too poor for mummification, as well.

        One thought that struck me, along the lines of much of Greg and Henry’s work, was that the incredible stability of Pharaonic Egyptian society over centuries could have partially genetic causes– the division into rigid, endogamous classes that have inherited characteristics that facilitate participation in their established role in society and deter social change. Greg has said related things about the Indian caste system (another social/religious system that has had far more longevity than most).

  15. ZI Alt says:

    I made the same mistake upon first perusal – “we estimated the average proportion of non-African ancestry in the Egyptians to be 80% and dated the midpoint of the admixture event by using ALDER20 to around 750 years ago (Table S2), consistent with the Islamic expansion and dates reported previously.13, 14”.
    When taken in the context of reference 14 – “These sub-Saharan ancestries appear to be a recent introduction into North African populations, dating to about 1,200 years ago in southern Morocco and about 750 years ago into Egypt, possibly reflecting the patterns of the trans-Saharan slave trade that occurred during this period”, we see that they are positing not an admixture of non-African material at the time but rather an infusion of African specific haplotypes resulting in a further dilution of a predominately non-African genomic population within Egypt.

    TL&DR- Its not “where did this 80% non-African come from” but “how did this 20% African get in here”…

    • gcochran9 says:

      You’re wrong. They were looking for old ancestry in Egypt: to get it they stripped out stuff that looked Eurasian. If they had understood that the sub-African-like ancestry was new, why would they have done that? I read it three times, because I had trouble believing that anyone was that crazy – well, a little trouble – but crazy they are.

      And I have now heard from one of the reviewers of the paper – that was his understanding, too, and they never denied it.

      They cited reference 14, but apparently they never read it.

      • zialt says:

        It was the only way I could make sense of it!
        The admixture data of course utilizes unmasked populations. Whereas the Eurasian masking removes any recent non-African demographic movements as well as any ancient back-migrations and/or population replacements, leaving a stripped down basal Egyptian of sorts, amongst an African background.
        What is interesting is what they do with this in Fig 2B and C, with the population fractions of the LD analysis, allowing them to say- “We showed that masked Northeast African haplotypes overall were more similar to non-African haplotypes and more frequently present outside Africa than were any sets of haplotypes derived from a West African population. Furthermore, the masked Egyptian haplotypes showed these properties more markedly than the masked Ethiopian haplotypes”.

  16. Matt says:

    Ignoring their recent historical assumptions about how much of the African is pre-Eurasian farmer vs post Eurasian farmers, they do find that the private haplotypes to the African portion of the Egyptian ancestry (not found in the other African ancestries) were more common in Eurasian populations. See their Figure 2C.

    Why? Is it just an insufficiency in their masking process e.g. they didn’t mask well enough and some of the Eurasian haplotypes in Egyptian got misclassified? Or is their process actually telling us what they think about the deep history (a “Northern” Out of Africa route, not one via Horn of Africa to Arabia), despite the fact they’re wrong on the recent history?

    Or something else? What’s the reason for their result if it’s not what they think it? Maybe we could learn something from that still.

    • Matt says:

      On that topic, the count of population specific haplotypes in the Egyptian African ancestry is around 1,776, lower than in Ethiopian African 2,156 and YRI 2,590. Not sure if that’s high or low overall. The sharing between the Ethiopian African and Egyptian African is of course higher than between either and Yoruba.

      If it does point to the Egyptian African ancestry being quite divergent from the Ethiopian African ancestry, then that’s interesting (since it would have to come from a source divergent to both regions, wherever that lived). Probably more interesting with a reference from Sudan as well though.

  17. epoch2013 says:

    “There may well be people in Ethiopia that have some local hunter-gatherer ancestry (there are indications of this)”

    But could it be done? Is their a way possible to weasel out DNA traces of the original Egyptian HGs from the Egyptians and compare these to the HG ancestry that are indications of in certain people in Ethiopia?

  18. Greying Wanderer says:

    Given that north Africa is part of the African border zone I’d have thought the pre-farming Egyptian HGs would have been dark-skinned with features that looked something like a cross between modern Caucasoid and modern SSA.

    If so where would they have survived best?


  19. Rick says:

    There are genomic studies that show Tunisian Berbers, without any Sub-Saharan ancestry, have a divergence time of about about 12K years from Non-African Eurasians populations. These people likely have a long history across all of North Africa. Why couldn’t the pre-Neolithic Egyptian hunter-gatherers be related to them?

    • Matt says:

      Doesn’t seem totally unlikely, although I doubt these Berbers are totally unadmixed.

      And post-Neolithic Ancient Egyptians could have some significant ancestry from the pre-Neolithic Egyptians.

      After all, taking other examples: Middle Neolithic Europeans are modeled wth 30-20% extra European HG ancestry to what Early Neolithic Europeans had (Haak 2015), and Early Neolithic Europeans didn’t have 0, necessarily, so it could even be as high as 40% European HG by the Middle Neolithic. While the Ethiopians are around 50:50 Middle East and African, the Yamnaya have around 50% EHG ancestry for sure with other ancestry is more a mystery, but isn’t necessarily all from the Early Neolithic Middle East, and Indians clearly have quite a bit of Ancestral South Indian ancestry.

      Admixture with HGs by early farmers is pretty ubiquitous, and fairly large. In contradiction to Neolithic total replacement stories which were always obviously wrong for India and East Africa.

      So it’s quite possible the Ancient Egyptians had quite a bit from pre-Neolithic Egypt.

      But as pre-Neolithic Egypt (as Greg alludes to) is likely to have certain similarities to the Neolithic Middle Eastern ancestry (cf Natufians) perhaps with some East African contribution and we’ve no ancient dna, it would be hard to pick out.

    • Lion of the Judah-sphere says:

      North Africa was totally black until 3000YBP

  20. It seems there is a common misconception. Without truly looking at the evidence people still assume that a near complete replacement of one population by another is the exception rather than a general rule given enough time in human prehistory.

    This near replacement of two separate populations happened more often than people think and much more easily than people think. All it took is one population to have a single advantage that allowed a higher reproduction rate than another one and then simply fast forward through enough generations for replacement to occur. Unlike other species who would quickly intermix with the old locals, humans would be very reluctant to do that. Language is one barrier and in these primitive cultures near the malthusian limit taking a mate with zero training in how your subculture works and provides would be disastrous.

    This isn’t a minor detail because it provides a way for human evolution to accelerate. Small advantages could lead to drastic change. Going back 70,000 years ago and looking for traces as to which direction humans migrated out of Africa is kind of like searching for where did someone pee in the swimming pool a day later.

    • Fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      You could almost model it with a pair of differential equations of the sort:

      dx/dt = alpha * x - gamma * x * y
      dy/dt = beta * y - delta * x * y

      However, a term is needed to model the sexual interactions.

      • Beyond Anon says:

        Assuming that the first one above is the new variant of Homo that has entered the range of an established variant, delta probably should contain t in some manner, since the new variant will be acquiring useful alleles from the old variant and thus improving its competitive position over time.

        That would make it a non-autonomous set of DEs then …

      • Beyond Anon says:

        Another problem you have is that you should be using logistic growth not exponential growth.

        You need something like:

        dx/dt = alpha * x * (1 - x/N) - gamma * x * y

        where N is the carrying capacity of the environment.

      • Jim says:

        Ignoring the signs of the parameters – Lotka-Volterra Equations.

  21. Hassan says:

    I was with you all the way until you said that most of the African in Egyptians is recent which seems to be absolutely bull. Firstly, East African mixture is found among almost all Afroasiatic populations from isolated Yemeni Jews and Bedouins to Berbers, Egyptians, Somalis and so on. The only exceptions are groups like Chadics who likely went through a language shift. In most cases, populations who enslaved Black Africans and mixed with them carry some sort of West and Central African ancestry as Black African slaves were taken from numerous places. We find a total lack of any West-Central or Bantu in many Afroasiatic populations yet the East African is so consistent. Not to mention unlike recent Bantu slave trade ancestry it isn’t varied between individuals and is very much stabilized in admixture levels. Most Egyptians consistently score 18%-22% East African with little difference. I have even seen the results of Egyptian Copts and they too show a similar level of East African ancestry with a total lack of any, even trace West-Central African ancestry. In fact as a whole, East African and Middle Eastern Farmer ancestry (ENF) is what in most cases connects Afroasiatic populations in my opinion and its very likely the original Proto-Afroasiatics were mostly Middle Easterners with some East African mixture, similar to modern Yemeni Jews and Egyptian Copts.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I think that you are mistaken. Look at this paper. They find that the genetic history of North Africa (including Egypt) is fairly complex, but that the sub-Saharan component is relatively recent. They see a component that increases in frequency from East to West, which they think is derived from Eurasians that entered North Africa quite a long time ago (> 12,000 years) – this Maghrebi component is common, sometimes very common, in Berber populations. They found sub-Saharan ancestry in varying amounts in North Africa, ranging from 1% to 55%. But in their Tunisian Berber samples it was zero, strongly suggesting that the original Maghrebi migration did not have any sub-Saharan component. By the way, while most Bedouins have a noticeable amount of sub-Saharan ancestry, some have have none at all.

      That paper has estimates of when sub-Saharan admixture entered Egypt and Morocco. First note that Egypt has ancestry from both Bantus and Nilotics, while Moroccan sub-Saharan ancestry is only from the Bantu. Next, the length of the genetic segments with a particular origin can tell you when admixture occurred – long tracts mean that the admixture happened recently. Looks as if the Bantu admixture in Morocco happened around 1200 years ago, while the Nilotic admixture in Egypt happened about 750 years ago.

      This approach is valid, but can’t reproduce the full historical details. Probably some of the Nilotic ancestry in Egyptians was earlier, even if most occurred after the Arab conquest. Probably all of the West African/Bantu admixture in Egyptians is relatively recent.

  22. Lion of the Judah-sphere says:

    Greg what do you think about the studies which show that blacks have a slightly higher IQ than both whites and asian ?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Give me an example. Since one can easily make a fairly long list of individual Europeans that each, by themselves, contributed more to the sum total of human knowledge than all the black people that ever lived (Newton, Gauss, Euler, Laplace, Kepler, Galileo, James Clerk Maxwell, Riemann, James Watt, Michael Faraday, etc) I guess I’m dubious.

    • Talsadoum says:

      That one of the most funny things I have ever seen.

      Some studies claim that all races are the same, but studies claiming that blacks are smarter than whites AND asians seriously dude WTF ?!

      You must be a troll, this isn’t possible otherwise.

      • Fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Well, at least he didn’t claim they were smarter than the Jews.

        • syon says:

          Fourth:”Well, at least he didn’t claim they were smarter than the Jews.”

          Yeah, since he didn’t bother to sub-divide the White population, we can just assume that he meant that Blacks are smarter than Bulgarians , but are stupider than the English, Ashkenazi Jews, Germans, etc

          Of course, that’s still silly, as the mean Bulgarian IQ is 93 (I think), which is well above the Black American mean (approx 85), let alone whatever the Black African mean might be

  23. panjoomby says:

    it’s pretty crazy to believe the population mean of group 1 equals the population mean of group 2. whenever a smart person in group 1 dies, then a smart person in group 2 would have to die to keep the population means exactly equal to each other. & to for both group population means to stay exactly equal on every characteristic at all times is even crazier than the truth claims of many religions. good god – maybe religions aren’t even equally crazy.

  24. Jim says:

    The fact that so many people believe this stuff shows how little the development of modern science has affected people’s thinking and how much animism – the belief that the world has an inherent moral and intentional structure – still holds sway.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I don’t pretend to know anything about genetics, but two matters are plainly crucial: the climate of the Sahara and Arabia at the time of the Out of Africa event and the extraction of DNA from Egyptian mummies. What is the latest about these?

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