The Anthropology of Addiction

Can we ever integrate neuroscience and social science?Bielefeld, Germany—The last in a series of posts about a recent conference, Neuroplasticity in Substance Addiction and Recovery: From Genes to Culture and Back Again. The conference, held at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) at Bielefeld University, drew neuroscientists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, and even a freelance science journalist or two, coming in from Germany, the U.S., The Netherlands, the UK, Finland, France, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere. The organizing idea was to focus on how changes in the brain impact addiction and recovery, and what that says about the interaction of genes and culture. The conference co-organizers were Jason Clark and Saskia Nagel of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. Part One …

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Forensic experts compile guide on how to ID child abuse, starvation

Forensic science experts from North Carolina State University are publishing a comprehensive overview of forensic research that can be used to identify child abuse and starvation.”By pulling all of this information together in one place, we hope that we can save the lives of some children and find justice for others,” says Dr. Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of the paper. Ross is also co-editor of the book “The Juvenile Skeleton in Forensic Abuse Investigations.””For example, we looked at issues of neglect in which children are starved to death,” Ross says. “These are supposedly rare, but I’ve unfortunately seen this a few times in my capacity as an advisor to medical examiners. In this paper we offer some guidelines on how to use the mineral density of bones to determine whether a child was being starved.”Proving that a child was starved to death is difficult; it’s essentially impossible to assess normal indicators of starvation once a body has decomposed. But the paper explains that forensic investigators can use a DXA scan, like those used to assess osteoporosis in older adults, to assess bone density and determine whether a child was severely malnourished.Also, because teeth are not as affected by malnutrition as bones are, investigators can compare the development of an individual’s teeth and bones. Stunted growth of a child’s tibia can be a strong indicator of starvation, for example.”These techniques are well-established but are not in widespread use in the United States,” Ross says.”We also combed the existing literature to focus on skeletal injuries that are indicators of abuse and that are unlikely or impossible to be caused by accident,” says Dr. Chelsey Juarez, an assistant professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of the paper.For example, rib fractures are very rare in accidental trauma, so the presence of rib fractures in children is highly suggestive of abuse.The paper also offers broader advice, such as noting that forensic investigators should determine whether the story they’re getting from a child’s caregiver is consistent with the injuries they see on the child.”The portion of the paper dealing with injuries is particularly important,” Juarez says. “Because while it can be used for post-mortem assessment, it can also be used to examine X-rays of living children who can still be saved from abuse.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by North Carolina State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Maya decapitated and dismembered their enemies

Sep. 10, 2013 — Researchers of the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn have discovered a mass grave in an artificial cave in the historical Maya city of Uxul (Mexico). Marks on the bones indicate that the individuals buried in the cave were decapitated and dismembered around 1,400 years ago. The scientists assume that the victims were either prisoners of war or nobles from Uxul itself.For the last five years, archaeologists of the department of Anthropology of the Americas of the University of Bonn have been excavating in the historical Maya city of Uxul in Campeche (Mexico) with the aim of researching the origins and the collapse of regional states in the Maya lowlands. The project headed by Prof. Dr. Nikolai Grube and Dr. Kai Delvendahl from the University of Bonn, as well as Dr. Antonio Benavides from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, which is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) has now made a sensational find: they have uncovered the skeletons of 24 people in an approximately 32 square meter artificial cave that had formerly been used as a water reservoir.”Aside from the large number of interred individuals, it already became apparent during the excavation that the skeletons were no longer in their original anatomical articulation,” says the archaeologist Nicolaus Seefeld, who studied the sophisticated water supply system of Uxul for his doctoral thesis and discovered the mass grave. All of the skulls were lying scattered around the interior of the cave, in no relation to the rest of the bodies. …

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Rare fossil ape cranium discovered in China

Sep. 6, 2013 — A team of researchers has discovered the cranium of a fossil ape from Shuitangba, a Miocene site in Yunnan Province, China. The juvenile cranium of the fossil ape Lufengpithecus is significant, according to team member Nina Jablonski, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Penn State.Jablonski noted that juvenile crania of apes and hominins are extremely rare in the fossil record, especially those of infants and young juveniles. This cranium is only the second relatively complete cranium of a young juvenile in the entire Miocene — 23-25 million years ago — record of fossil apes throughout the Old World, and both were discovered from the late Miocene of Yunnan Province.The cranium is also noteworthy for its age. Shuitangba, the site from which it was recovered, at just over 6 million years old, dates to near the end of the Miocene, a time when apes had become extinct in most of Eurasia. Shuitangba has also produced remains of the fossil monkey, Mesopithecus, which represents the earliest occurrence of monkeys in East Asia.Jablonski was co-author of a recent paper online in the Chinese Science Bulletin that described the discovery.”The preservation of the new cranium is excellent, with only minimal post-depositional distortion,” Jablonski said. “This is important because all previously discovered adult crania of the species to which it is assigned, Lufengpithecus lufengensis, were badly crushed and distorted during the fossilization process. In living ape species, cranial anatomy in individuals at the same stage of development as the new fossil cranium already show a close resemblance to those of adults.”Therefore, the new cranium, despite being from a juvenile, gives researchers the best look at the cranial anatomy of Lufengpithecus lufengensis.”Partly because of where and when Lufengpithecus lived, it is considered by most to be in the lineage of the extant orangutan, now confined to Southeast Asia but known from the late Pleistocene of southern China as well,” Jablonski said.However, the researchers noted the cranium shows little resemblance to those of living orangutans, and in particular, shows none of what are considered to be key diagnostic features of orangutan crania. Lufengpithecus therefore appears to represent a late surviving lineage of Eurasian apes, but with no certain affinities yet clear.The survival of this lineage is not entirely surprising since southern China was less affected by climatic deterioration during the later Miocene that resulted in the extinction of many ape species throughout the rest of Eurasia. The researchers are hopeful that further excavations will produce the remains of adult individuals, which will allow them to better assess the relationships among members of this lineage as well as the relationships of this lineage to other fossil and extant apes.

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Better hygiene in wealthy nations may increase Alzheimer’s risk, study suggests

Sep. 4, 2013 — People living in industrialised countries may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s due to greatly reduced contact with bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms — which can lead to problems with immune development and increased risk of dementia, suggests a new study.New research has found a “very significant” relationship between a nation’s wealth and hygiene and the Alzheimer’s “burden” on its population. High-income, highly industrialised countries with large urban areas and better hygiene exhibit much higher rates of Alzheimer’s.Using ‘age-standardised’ data — which predict Alzheimer’s rates if all countries had the same population birth rate, life expectancy and age structure — the study found strong correlations between national sanitation levels and Alzheimer’s.This latest study adds further weight to the “hygiene hypothesis” in relation to Alzheimer’s: that sanitised environments in developed nations result in far less exposure to a diverse range of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms — which might actually cause the immune system to develop poorly, exposing the brain to the inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s disease, say the researchers.”The ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which suggests a relationship between cleaner environments and a higher risk of certain allergies and autoimmune diseases, is well- established. We believe we can now add Alzheimer’s to this list of diseases,” said Dr Molly Fox, lead author of the study and Gates Cambridge Alumna, who conducted the research at Cambridge’s Biological Anthropology division.”There are important implications for forecasting future global disease burden, especially in developing countries as they increase in sanitation.”The researchers tested whether “pathogen prevalence” can explain the levels of variation in Alzheimer’s rates across 192 countries.After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the study found that countries with higher levels of sanitation had higher rates of Alzheimer’s. For example, countries where all people have access to clean drinking water, such as the UK and France, have 9% higher Alzheimer’s rates than countries where less than half have access, such as Kenya and Cambodia.Countries that have much lower rates of infectious disease, such as Switzerland and Iceland, have 12% higher rates of Alzheimer’s compared with countries with high rates of infectious disease, such as China and Ghana.More urbanised countries exhibited higher rates of Alzheimer’s, irrespective of life expectancy. Countries where more than three-quarters of the population are located in urban areas, such as the UK and Australia, exhibit 10% higher rates of Alzheimer’s compared to countries where less than one-tenth of people inhabit urban areas, such as Bangladesh and Nepal.Differences in levels of sanitation, infectious disease and urbanisation accounted respectively for 33%, 36% and 28% of the discrepancy in Alzheimer’s rates between countries.Researchers said that, although these trends had “overlapping effects,” they are a good indication of a country’s degree of hygiene which, when combined, account for 42.5% of the “variation” in countries’ Alzheimer’s disease rates — showing that countries with greater levels of hygiene have much higher Alzheimer’s rates regardless of general life expectancy.Previous research has shown that in the developed world, dementia rates doubled every 5.8 years compared with 6.7 years in low income, developing countries; and that Alzheimer’s prevalence in Latin America, China and India are all lower than in Europe, and, within those regions, lower in rural compared with urban settings — supporting the new study’s findings.The results of the study are newly published by the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, with these latest results coming hard on the heels of previous research led by Fox on the benefits of breastfeeding for Alzheimer’s prevention.”Exposure to microorganisms is critical for the regulation of the immune system,” write the researchers, who say that say that — since increasing global urbanisation beginning at the turn of the 19th century — the populations of many of the world’s wealthier nations have increasingly very little exposure to the so-called ‘friendly’ microbes which “stimulate” the immune system — due to “diminishing contact with animals, faeces and soil.”Aspects of modern life — antibiotics, sanitation, clean drinking water, paved roads and so on — lead to lower rates of exposure to these microorganisms that have been “omnipresent” for the “majority of human history,” they say.This lack of microbe and bacterial contact can lead to insufficient development of the white blood cells that defend the body against infection, particularly those called T-cells — the foot soldiers of the immune system that attack foreign invaders in the bloodstream.Deficiency of anti-inflammatory (“regulatory”) T-cells has links to the types of inflammation commonly found in the brain of those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, and the researchers’ proposal that Alzheimer’s risk is linked to the general hygiene levels of a nation’s population is reinforced by their analysis of global Alzheimer’s rates.”The increase in adult life expectancy and Alzheimer’s prevalence in developing countries is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our time. Today, more than 50% of people with Alzheimer’s live in the developing world, and by 2025 it is expected that this figure will rise to more than 70%,” said Fox.”A better understanding of how environmental sanitation influences Alzheimer’s risk could open up avenues for both lifestyle and pharmaceutical strategies to limit Alzheimer’s prevalence. An awareness of this by-product of increasing wealth and development could encourage the innovation of new strategies to protect vulnerable populations from Alzheimer’s.”While childhood — when the immune system is developing — is typically considered critical to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, the researchers say that regulatory T-cell numbers peak at various points in a person’s life — adolescence and middle age for example — and that microorganism exposure across a lifetime may be related to Alzheimer’s risk, citing previous research showing fluctuations in Alzheimer’s risk in migrants.The team used the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates to calculate the incidence of Alzheimer’s across the countries studied. The DALY measurement is the sum of years lost due to premature mortality combined with years spent in disability — the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that one DALY can be thought of as “one lost year of ‘healthy’ life.”The researchers say this method is a much better measure than death rates as it “omits the effects of differential mortality rates” between developed and developing countries. The study was based on the WHO’s ‘Global Burden of Disease’ report, which presents world dementia data for 2004.Age-standardised dataThe process of age-standardisation presents a “single summary rate that reflects the number of events that would have been expected if the populations being compared had had identical age distribution” (WHO 2001)The age-standardised data is calculated by adjusting the crude data for 5-year age groups by age-weights reflecting the age-distribution of the standard population. …

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Dueling infections: Parasitic worms limit the effects of giardia, and vice versa

Aug. 30, 2013 — If the idea of hookworms makes you shudder, consider this: Those pesky intestinal parasites may actually help your body ward off other infections, and perhaps even prevent autoimmune and other diseases.Studying members of the Tsimane, an indigenous population in the lowlands of Central Bolivia, UC Santa Barbara anthropologists Aaron Blackwell and Michael Gurven found that individuals infected by helminths — parasitic worms — were less likely than their counterparts to suffer from giardia, an intestinal malady caused by a flagellated protozoa. Similarly, those with giardia tended to be less infected by helminths. The researchers’ findings appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.Treatment of one parasite also led to a greater likelihood of having the other later, the researchers found. The study used longitudinal data on 3,275 Tsimane collected over six years, which thereby permitted the authors to make more definitive causal inferences. This represents a distinct improvement over common correlative studies.”People living in developing countries are often burdened by simultaneous infections,” said Blackwell, an assistant professor of anthropology and the paper’s lead author. “The key finding in this study is that worms and giardia have antagonistic effects on one another, such that infection with one limits infection with the other.”The researchers’ findings also suggest that treating one infection might allow the other to run rampant, which raises questions about currently accepted protocols for dealing with parasites.According to Gurven, a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, a collaboration between UCSB and the University of New Mexico, more than 1.5 billion people in the developing world have soil-transmitted intestinal worms. To determine which particular individuals are infected — and require treatment — however, is a very costly endeavor.”There are campaigns in many developing countries to give every child under five de-worming medication, but if the basic infrastructure that leads to infection doesn’t change — like sanitation and access to shoes and clean water — re-infection is likely to happen within six months,” he said. “And if intestinal worms are protective against giardia, there’s a tradeoff, and then the question is, which of the two is worse?”Diagnosis and treatment of parasites usually happen on an organism-by-organism basis, continued Gurven, a co-author of the paper. Further, he argues that in the case of hookworm and giardia, the relationship between the parasites needs to be taken into account in order to maintain the overall health of the individual involved.That one intestinal parasite has the ability to limit the pervasiveness of another also sheds light on the significance of parasites in general. …

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Evolution of monogamy in humans the result of infanticide risk, new study suggests

July 29, 2013 — The threat of infants being killed by unrelated males is the key driver of monogamy in humans and other primates, a new study suggests.The study by academics from UCL, University of Manchester, University of Oxford and University of Auckland, is the first to reveal this evolutionary pathway for the emergence of pair living.The team also found that following the emergence of monogamy males are more likely to care for their offspring. Where fathers care for young, not only can they protect infants from other males, but they can also share the burden of childcare.Dr Kit Opie (UCL Anthropology), lead author of the study published in the journal PNAS, said: “This is the first time that the theories for the evolution of monogamy have been systematically tested, conclusively showing that infanticide is the driver of monogamy. This brings to a close the long running debate about the origin of monogamy in primates.”Infants are most vulnerable when they are fully dependent on their mother because females delay further conception while nursing slowly developing young. This leads to the threat from unrelated males, who can bring the next conception forward by killing the infant. Sharing the costs of raising young both shortens the period of infant dependency and can allow females to reproduce more quickly.An additional benefit of sharing the burden of care is that females can then have more costly young. The considerable cognitive requirements of living in complex societies has resulted in many primate species having large, and costly, brains.Growing a big brain is expensive and requires that offspring mature slowly. Caring fathers can help alleviate the burden of looking after young with long childhoods and may explain how large brains could evolve in humans. Humans, uniquely among primates, have both very long childhoods and mothers that can reproduce quickly relative to other great apes.Until now, a number of hypotheses have been proposed to explain the evolution of monogamy among mammals. These include:Paternal care, when the cost of raising offspring is high Guarding solitary females from rival males Infanticide risk, where males can provide protection against rival males To uncover the evolutionary pathway the team gathered data across 230 primate species. These were then plotted on a family tree of the relationships between those species. …

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Extinct ancient ape did not walk like a human, study shows

July 25, 2013 — According to a new study, led by University of Texas at Austin anthropologists Gabrielle A. Russo and Liza Shapiro, a 9- to 7-million-year-old ape from Italy did not, in fact, walk habitually on two legs. The findings refute a long body of evidence, suggesting that Oreopithecus had the capabilities for bipedal (moving on two legs) walking.The study, published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, confirms that anatomical features related to habitual upright, two-legged walking remain exclusively associated with humans and their fossil ancestors.”Our findings offer new insight into the Oreopithecus locomotor debate,” says Russo, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Northeast Ohio Medical University. “While it’s certainly possible that Oreopithecus walked on two legs to some extent, as apes are known to employ short bouts of this activity, an increasing amount of anatomical evidence clearly demonstrates that it didn’t do so habitually.”As part of the study, the researchers analyzed the fossil ape to see whether it possessed lower spine anatomy consistent with bipedal walking. They compared measurements of its lumbar vertebrae (lower back) and sacrum (a triangular bone at the base of the spine) to those of modern humans, fossil hominins (extinct bipedal human ancestors), and a sample of mammals that commonly move around in trees, including apes, sloths and an extinct lemur.The lower spine serves as a good basis for testing the habitual bipedal locomotion hypothesis because human lumbar vertebrae and sacra exhibit distinct features that facilitate the transmission of body weight for habitual bipedalism, says Russo.According to the findings, the anatomy of Oreopithecus lumbar vertebrae and sacrum is unlike that of humans, and more similar to apes, indicating that it is incompatible with the functional demands of walking upright as a human does.”The lower spine of humans is highly specialized for habitual bipedalism, and is therefore a key region for assessing whether this uniquely human form of locomotion was present in Oreopithecus,” says Shapiro, a professor of anthropology. “Previous debate on the locomotor behavior of Oreopithecus had focused on the anatomy of the limbs and pelvis, but no one had reassessed the controversial claim that its lower back was human-like.”

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Oldest European fort in the inland U.S. discovered in Appalachians

July 23, 2013 — The remains of the earliest European fort in the interior of what is now the United States have been discovered by a team of archaeologists, providing new insight into the start of the U.S. colonial era and the all-too-human reasons spoiling Spanish dreams of gold and glory.Spanish Captain Juan Pardo and his men built Fort San Juan in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in 1567, nearly 20 years before Sir Walter Raleigh’s “lost colony” at Roanoke and 40 years before the Jamestown settlement established England’s presence in the region.”Fort San Juan and six others that together stretched from coastal South Carolina into eastern Tennessee were occupied for less than 18 months before the Native Americans destroyed them, killing all but one of the Spanish soldiers who manned the garrisons,” said University of Michigan archaeologist Robin Beck.Beck, an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Anthropology and assistant curator at the U-M Museum of Anthropology, is working with archaeologists Christopher Rodning of Tulane University and David Moore of Warren Wilson College to excavate the site near the city of Morganton in western North Carolina, nearly 300 miles from the Atlantic Coast.The Berry site, named in honor of the stewardship of landowners James and the late Pat Berry, is located along a tributary of the Catawba River and was the location of the Native American town of Joara, part of the mound-building Mississippian culture that flourished in the southeastern U.S. between 800 and about 1500 CE.In 2004, with support from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Beck and his colleagues began excavating several of the houses occupied by Spanish soldiers at Joara, where Pardo built Fort San Juan. Pardo named this small colony of Spanish houses Cuenca, after his own hometown in Spain. Yet the remains of the fort itself eluded discovery until last month.”We have known for more than a decade where the Spanish soldiers were living,” Rodning said. “This summer we were trying to learn more about the Mississippian mound at Berry, one that was built by the people of Joara, and instead we discovered part of the fort. For all of us, it was an incredible moment.”Using a combination of large-scale excavations and geophysical techniques like magnetometry, which provides x-ray-like images of what lies below the surface, the archaeologists have now been able to identify sections of the fort’s defensive moat or ditch, a likely corner bastion and a graveled surface that formed an entryway to the garrison.Excavations in the moat conducted in late June reveal it to have been a large V-shaped feature measuring 5.5 feet deep and 15 feet across. Spanish artifacts recovered this summer include iron nails and tacks, Spanish majolica pottery, and an iron clothing hook of the sort used for fastening doublets and attaching sword scabbards to belts.Fort San Juan was the first and largest of the garrisons that Pardo founded as part of an ambitious effort to colonize the American South. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had established the Spanish colonies of St. Augustine and Santa Elena in 1565 and 1566, respectively, spearheaded this effort. …

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The power of imitation: Already in infancy, imitation promotes a general pro-social orientation toward others

June 27, 2013 — Being mimicked increases pro-social behaviour in adults, yet little is known about its social effect on children. Researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now investigated whether the fact of being imitated had an influence on infants’ pro-social behaviour and on young children’s trust in another person.In one study, eighteen-month-old infants were either mimicked or not by an experimenter. Later, when this experimenter or a different adult needed help, infants who had been imitated were more likely to help spontaneously. In a second study, five- to six-year-olds interacted with one experimenter who mimicked their choices and another experimenter who made independent choices. The researchers found that the children were more likely to trust the preferences and factual claims of the experimenter who had mimicked them before. These results demonstrate that already in infancy mimicry promotes a general pro-social orientation toward others and that in young children imitation is a powerful means of social influence in development.Imitation is not only a means by which we learn from others. As adults, we routinely and automatically copy each other’s movements, postures, and facial expressions, and this has a variety of positive social consequences. After being mimicked, we behave more helpfully and generously toward others, from picking up others’ dropped belongings to giving more money to charity. Much less is known, however, about the social effects of imitation on infants and young children.Focusing on the social side of imitation, the researchers tested in a first study whether being mimicked increased pro-social behaviour in infants, as it does in adults. To this end, 48 eighteen-month-old infants were either mimicked or not by an experimenter: In the mimic condition, the experimenter immediately copied everything she saw or heard infants do. …

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Social animals have more social smarts

June 26, 2013 — Lemurs from species that hang out in big tribes are more likely to steal food behind your back instead of in front of your face.This behavior suggests that primates who live in larger social groups tend to have more “social intelligence,” a new study shows. The results appear June 27 in PLOS ONE.A Duke University experiment tested whether living in larger social networks directly relates to higher social abilities in animals. Working with six different species of lemurs living at the Duke Lemur Center, a team of undergraduate researchers tested 60 individuals to see if they would be more likely to steal a piece of food if a human wasn’t watching them.In one test, a pair of human testers sat with two plates of food. One person faced the plate and the lemur entering the room, the other had his or her back turned. In a second, testers sat in profile, facing toward or away from the plate. In a third, they wore a black band either over their eyes or over their mouths and both faced the plates and lemurs.As the lemurs jumped onto the table where the plates were and decided which bit of food to grab, the ones from large social groups, like the ringtailed lemur (Lemur catta), were evidently more sensitive to social cues that a person might be watching, said Evan MacLean, a research scientist in the Department Of Evolutionary Anthropology who led the research team. Lemurs from small-group species, like the mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz), were less sensitive to the humans’ orientation.Few of the lemurs apparently understood the significance of a blindfold.The work is the first to test the relationship between group size and social intelligence across multiple species. The findings support the “social intelligence hypothesis,” which suggests that living in large social networks drove the evolution of complex social cognition in primates, including humans, MacLean said.Behavioral experiments are critical to test the idea because assumptions about intelligence based solely on brain size may not hold up, he said. Indeed, this study found that some lemur species had evolved more social smarts without increasing the size of their brains.

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