Episode 1.9 – Atlantic Adventures

A Depiction of Hanno the Navigator

In the last episode, we had looked a crucial battle in the history of Carthage, that of Himera. We examined the long chain of causes that lead to the conflict and studied its aftermath. Towards the end of the episode, I had pointed out that the effect of the Battle of Himera was such that it prevented Carthage from intervening in Sicilian affairs for a good seventy years. That didn’t mean that Carthage wasn’t active anymore. As we’ll see in today’s episode, there was plenty for the Carthaginians to do. Particularly, we’ll examine Carthage’s consolidation of the metals trade and her venturing into the Atlantic for that very reason.

Ready? Let’s go.

For a good chunk of this time, she also cut herself off economically from the rest of the world. Beginning in about 450 BC, the archeology of the city shows a general decline in the material life of the city, particularly in the form of an absence of luxury grave goods. Goods from Greece, Etruria, and Egypt, that were apparent in the archaeological record before this time, no longer appear.

Earlier, at least, it was thought that Carthage’s economic decline was the result of the battle itself. Subsequent archeology, however, brought to light the flourishing post-Himeran Athenian-Punic trade that I alluded to in the last episode. The archeology from the early to mid-fifth century indicates that importation of Greek goods increased. In fact, 20% of the pottery found at Carthage from this period was from Ionia, while only 4% was from the Levant.

However, the resulting economic prosperity lasted only for about a generation. The economic decline becomes apparent in the archeology at about the middle of the century. The question is: Why? Was it self-imposed or were the causes external?

One theory posited is as follows: Athens arose as a significant naval power in the aftermath of the Persian defeat. It formed a confederation of allied coastal city-states and islands all over the Aegean. The purpose of this league was to exclude the Persians from the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. In 468 BC, the Phoenicians suffered a naval defeat at her hands. In 459 BC, Athens raided Phoenicia herself. For a while, even Cyprus came under Athenian control. For Carthage, this resulted in the loss of her Phoenician markets, which, the theory posits, meant that Carthage’s economy declined.

This theory, however, only accounts for the period before the economic austerity becomes apparent in the archaeological record. It does not account for Carthage’s economic decline after this time. Carthage’s loss of her Phoenician markets before her economic downturn began, coincides perfectly not only with the fall in Levantine imports, as would be expected, but also with the rise of Athenian imports. As I mentioned just a few minutes ago, 20% of all pottery at Carthage from this period comes from Athens, while only 4% comes from Phoenicia. These numbers mean that Carthage merely replaced her lost Phoenician markets, with new ones in Greece. What we don’t know, however, is why even the Athenian imports declined post 450 BC.

Another possible reason, according to Warmington, is the fact that Carthage didn’t begin minting coins until after 400 BC. The Greeks first began striking coins in 500 BC, while Motya & Panormus started creating coins by 450 BC. As a side note, this latter fact shows the degree to which Motya and Panormus were independent of Carthage even this late in Carthage’s evolution from a simple trading post into a colonial power. The rise of coinage and the subsequent decline of barter meant that Carthage, who had no coins, could no longer trade, except with those who were still willing to barter. This explanation, though plausible, is a bit odd. Would Carthage accept material austerity merely because they didn’t want to trade in coins? All they had to do was start minting, which they eventually did, anyway. Perhaps they began creating coins after 400 BC precisely because they felt the pinch in the generations before. Who knows?

There is, however, another explanation. Carthage’s supposed economic decline during the years 450 BC through to 410 BC correlate directly with actions that Carthage was taking elsewhere in the Mediterranean. On the surface, due to lack of details in the literature, her efforts seem to be a hodgepodge of unrelated actions. There is, however, a thread that connects them all. And I will try my best to present this thread in this episode.

The key to understanding Carthage’s activities from 450 to 410 is as follows: The defeat at Himera brought to light the uncomfortable fact that Carthage was no match for the Doric military engine. As such, the Tyrrhenian trading circuit was under threat. In fact, during this period, Carthage imported virtually no goods from Etruria. The economic counterbalance to this danger was a newfound focus on the metals trade in the Western Mediterranean. Recall that the value of silver had declined by the middle of the sixth century BC, such that the Tyrrhenian trading circuit had become Carthage’s principal source of wealth. With this trade now under attack, however, Carthage needed another source of revenue. It was the perfect reason to swing back to silver. Silver was low value, but Carthage could change that if she monopolized its trade. Also, Carthage could supplement silver with other metals, like tin, copper & gold.

So how did Carthage go about doing this?

Let’s begin the story in Iberia, the source of Tyre’s silver. Sometime before the Battle of Himera, the Gadians found themselves under attack from the neighboring Tartessians. They solicited the help of their brethren at Carthage. The literature records that not only did Carthage help the Gadians defend their city, Carthage used this as an excuse to wipe the entire Tartessian civilization out. And, as if to put a cherry atop the icing on the cake, once they finished the Tartessians, they turned on Gades herself, laying siege to her until the Gadians surrendered.

Archeologically, we have no way of knowing if the Carthaginians did turn on Gades since she now lies under the modern city of Cadiz. However, we can rebut the claim that Carthage destroyed Tartessos with certainty. While the archeology does show that the Tartessian culture was declining at this time, evidence for Phoenician or Carthaginian involvement is absent. In fact, the only proof of military encounters within the Tartessian Kingdom is that of a civil war. The only Punic evidence on Iberia is from brand new coastal settlements in what is today Portugal and from old Phoenician colonies that were expanded and renewed by the Carthaginians. Gades and Tyre’s other Iberian colonies may have become Carthaginian dependencies, but claims of a full-scale military invasion are not valid. This invalidity is also borne out by the fact that the 509 treaty with Rome, does not list Iberia as a protected territory.

If Carthage didn’t destroy the local civilization, then what did they do with them, if anything? For one thing, Carthage was able to acquire mercenaries from Iberia to help with their military campaigns. Time and time again we see the famous Iberian warriors popping up in Carthaginian history. Some treaties with the locals also allowed the Carthaginians to exploit the silver mines.

As far as the Phoenicians in Iberia were concerned, we know from the historical record that almost all of Tyre’s colonies on the eastern coast of the peninsula signed treaties with Carthage, which, though limited their sovereignty, also granted the right of self-government to them, much like that on Sicily. However, one finds very little Punic influence in the archeology, which implies that Carthage didn’t send many settlers here.

The Western coast of Iberia, however, is a different matter altogether. Here, we see the bona fide Carthaginian religious emblem, the ‘Sign of Tanit,’ everywhere. What’s surprising is that this sign is rarely found anywhere else on the Peninsula, indicating the strength of Punic colonization in Portugal. From here, Punic influence spread into Africa, particularly, the Oran region & Morocco.

Presence in Iberia also meant that the Carthaginians would meet the Phocaeans of Massalia again since they were using Southern Gaul as a base to expand into Spain. As a result, the literature makes some vague references to a struggle between the Carthaginians and the Phocaeans. First, Carthage destroyed a Greek colony close to the Phoenician settlement of Malacca. Then, both sides went to war for the control of the North Eastern Spanish coast. The conflict ended with the Battle of Artemisium, which Carthage won, blocking Greek entry into Spain for a long time.

Even though the 509 treaty with Rome does not list Iberia as a protected territory, a 348 BC treaty does. Why did this change? I speculate that by this time, in fact, well before it, Carthage had Iberia’s silver mines under her control. In Carthage’s mind, granting Rome trading access to this region meant that she would become covetous of the silver here, and would, thus, take actions to acquire it for herself. This Carthage did not want.

With Iberia under her belt, Carthage was also anxious to have a hand in the European tin trade. In antiquity, tin came from a mysterious place known as the Cassiterides Islands, variously identified as the Scilly Islands off of Cornwall, Cornwall herself and the British Isles in general. Often these were identified with another mysterious land called the Oestrymnides, home of the Oestrymnians. Legend had it that the Oestrymnians had escaped their homeland somewhere on the Western coast of the Iberian peninsula because of an invasion of ‘serpent folk.’ Subsequently, they made the region we know today as Brittany their new home. The literature records them as being either those who mined the tin and supplied Europe with it or those who acquired it from the mysterious Cassiterides and selling it to the Gauls, who passed it on to the Massalian Greeks. In the interregnum post-Himera, Carthage wanted to consolidate her hold on this trade. To that end, her government decided to send Himilco, a son of the defeated general Hamilcar, brother of the supposedly exiled Gisco, on a voyage up the coast of Iberia.

It’s a short account since not many details survive, and those that do are fragmentary or paraphrases. Our primary source for Himilco’s voyage is a Latin poet from the fourth century AD, Avienus. The only other reference that directly mentions Himilco’s voyage is Pliny the Elder, who wrote about it in his Natural History. From these accounts, we know that Himilco explored the coasts of Spain, Portugal, France, and even, England and Ireland. He came across shallow, calm seas. But his progress was hindered by some seaweed and “huge marine monsters.” He encountered the Oestrymnians who came out in their boats to greet him and his crew. After about four months, having just explored the coast of the British Isles, Himilco turned back and went home. If this account is accurate, then Himilco was the first ever known explorer to sail from the Mediterranean Sea and reach the northwestern shores of Europe.

Unfortunately, there is no way for us to verify this account. As I just mentioned a few minutes ago, there’s plenty of archaeological evidence for Punic presence in Portugal. But on its own, that doesn’t prove that this voyage happened. Also, there are no Phoenician or Punic remains in France, before the Hannibalic era, and none whatsoever in the British Isles. The reality of this voyage may forever remain a mystery.

From Spain, West Africa was a mere hop away. In antiquity, the West African coast had always been immensely attractive to many a civilization. First came the Phoenicians. Then, the Carthaginians. Then, the Numidians. Then, the Romans. And finally, the Arabs. West Africa was a commercially valuable region. It was a significant source of fish, which was pickled, salted or fermented. A pasty form of fermented fish, known as garum, was a favorite condiment all throughout the Mediterranean for more than a millennium. The region was also a source of the murex, which was used to produce the famous purple dye. Most pertinent to our purposes, West Africa, was also a source of precious metals. From Mauritania came copper and from Nigeria, tin.

But the commodity from the region that everyone coveted was gold. Herodotus describes a curious scene illustrating how the Phoenicians acquired this gold from the natives of the area. When they made landfall, they laid their goods on the shore and then returned to their ships. There they generated a smoke signal that alerted the locals, who then came out to inspect the goods. After examining the wares, they laid down as much gold as they thought they were worth. After this, the Phoenicians returned ashore. If they thought the cash enough, they took it and left. If not, they returned to their ships and waited. The locals then added to the gold already there, repeating the process until the Phoenicians were satisfied that the gold was enough. Herodotus mentions at the end of this account that neither party was dealt with unfairly and that neither side touched the other’s property until both were satisfied.

The island of Mogador, modern Essaouira, off of the coast of Morocco, was home to settlers from Gades. When the Gadians found themselves under attack from the neighboring Tartessians, sometime before the Battle of Himera, the settlers on Mogador abandoned the island en masse and returned to Gades to help their brethren out. After Gades came under Carthaginian control, Mogador stayed empty. Save a minor presence just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the entire coast of West Africa was now devoid of any Phoenician presence. After the Battle of Himera, however, this region became an object of Carthage’s desire. The crises at Gades had created a vacuum in West Africa, and Carthage was more than eager to fill it. To that end, Carthage outfitted an expedition under Himilco’s brother, Hanno, at around the same time as Himilco’s voyage, to sail down the Atlantic coast of Africa. His government entrusted him with several objectives; he was to plant colonies, acquire new markets for their manufactures, and most importantly, acquire the most coveted West African gold.

As it so happens, the account of this voyage comes to us from a standalone manuscript, is longer and is far more interesting. I will read you an English translation of the Greek account, and as I go along, I will provide some commentary to explain the text.

Did Hanno discover gorillas or orangutans?

Here goes:

A report of the voyage of Hanno, king of the Carthaginians, to the parts of Africa beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which he dedicated in the temple of Baal; the following is the text:

1) The Carthaginians decreed that Hanno should sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules and found colonies of Libyphoenicians. He set sail with sixty-five oared ships, men and women to the number of 30,000, and food and other essentials.

Comment: At least one of these numbers is wrong. If 30,000 people occupy 65 ships, that’s about 460 people per ship. That’s too many bodies for a quinquereme, even if you account for the hundred or so oarsmen.

2) After passing the Pillars and sailing on for two days, we founded the first colony which we called Thymiaterion, near which is a large plain.

Comment: After passing the Straits of Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules in this text, modern Tangiers would be anybody’s first stop. The archaeology here suggests that Tangiers was a Phoenician colony. If this was indeed the first stop on Hanno’s voyage, then it’s not impossible that modern Tangiers is Carthaginian Thymiaterion.

3) Then sailing westwards, we arrived at the place called Soloeis, a cape covered with trees.

Comment: Cape Soloeis is the modern Ras Nouadhibou in Mauritania.

4) After we had dedicated a sanctuary there to Poseidon, we turned and sailed east for half a day, after which we arrived at a lagoon not far from the sea, covered with thick, high reeds. Elephants and many other animals were there feeding.

5) We skirted this lagoon for a day, and then left colonists at Carian Fort, Gutta, Acra, Melitta, and Arambys.

Comment: While scholars have suggested numerous locations for these five colonies, Tangiers, Lixus and Mogador are the only sites West of the Straits that display any sign of Phoenician settlement. If the number of colonies planted is right, then the number of people accompanying Hanno on this voyage is suspect. 30,000 people distributed over six colonies (the five just mentioned plus Thymiaterion) is 5,000 people per colony. This figure is ten times the maximum number of people a small trading station could accommodate, according to the literature. Five thousand colonists, among whom were women, too, means that the settlements would have to be substantial. But there is no archaeological evidence. If the planting of these colonies is a fact and there is no archaeological evidence for it, then the number of colonists traveling with Hanno is almost certainly wrong. A settlement of 5,000 people should leave behind traces of stone structures. The fact that they didn’t, implies that these weren’t colonies. Instead, they were small trading stations, just like the ones we spoke about in Episode 1.2.

6) From here we sailed to the Lixus, a great river which flows out of Libya. On its banks, the Lixites, who are nomads, pasture their flocks. We remained for some time with these people, with whom we became friends.

Comment: This bit is interesting. To understand what’s going on here, we need a short geography lesson. If you are going West, immediately after passing the Straits of Gibraltar, you are going to find Tangiers. The river Lixus and the colony of Lixus are also nearby. After sailing a few hundred miles along the coast of Morocco, you will arrive at Mogador. You won’t get to Cape Soloeis until a few hundred miles later. The bit I just read to you, however, seems to claim that the river Lixus is, in fact, south of Cape Soloeis, hundreds of miles away from its real location. It may merely be a mistake. Or, it may be something a little more than that, as we’ll discuss shortly.

What’s also interesting is that, though the account mentions the Lixites, it does not mention the colony of Lixus itself. The literary record claims that the Phoenician colony of Lixus was founded even before Gades, at the end of the twelfth century BC. Archaeologically, however, we know that Lixus didn’t exist until after the Phoenicians first abandoned Mogador, around 500 BC. Because this journey took place sometime after 480 BC, it is safe to assume that, if the Lixus mentioned in the text is the same as the real Lixus, there was already a Punic or Phoenician colony here at the time of this voyage. That there was a colony here is also shown by the fact that the text will mention in the subsequent lines that the Carthaginians took ‘interpreters’ with them for the rest of the voyage. Where would they get interpreters in such a short time, if there wasn’t already a colony here? Why the account doesn’t talk about the colony is anybody’s guess.

7) Beyond them lived barbarous Ethiopians in a country full of savage beasts, crossed by mountain ranges, in which they say the Lixus rises. Around these mountains live a people of a peculiar aspect, the Troglodytes; the Lixites claim they can run faster than horses.

8) Taking interpreters from the Lixites, we sailed south along a desert coast for two days and then east for one day. There we found in a gulf a small island with a circumference of 5 stadia (three-quarters of a mile); we called it Cerne and left colonists on it. From the distance that we had sailed, we calculated that it was situated opposite to Carthage, for the sailing time from Carthage to the Pillars of Hercules was the same as that from the Straits to Cerne.

Comment: There have been many candidates for Cerne island, but Picard suggests that Cerne Island is modern day Hern Island in the Gulf of Rio de Oro. One reason is the similarity of the name. Another is that it is as far from the Straits as Carthage is in the other direction, according to the criteria mentioned in the text. This region was famous throughout the Middle Ages as a source of gold. If the Carthaginians were looking for gold, Hern Island is the most likely candidate.

There are no Punic archeological remains on Hern, but independent corroboration of the visitation of Cerne Island comes from a work titled the ‘Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax.’ The author of the work mentions that in his time, that is around 338 BC, Cerne Island was still a center of Phoenician trade. He describes the Phoenicians as pitching tents whenever they arrived on the island, which makes the existence of Hanno’s colonists here doubtful.

9) From there, passing a large river, the Chretes, we came to a lagoon containing three islands larger than that of Cerne. Leaving them, we sailed for a day and reached the head of the lagoon which was dominated by very high mountains, inhabited by savages, who wore the skins of wild beasts and prevented us from landing by throwing stones at us.

Comment: The river Chretes is, probably, the river Senegal.

10) From there we entered another deep, wide river, full of hippopotami and crocodiles; we then returned to Cerne.

11) Later we again sailed south from Cerne for twelve days along the coast, all of which was inhabited by Ethiopians, who ran away from us. Even the Lixites with us could not understand their language.

12) On the twelfth day, we anchored under a high wooded mountain range, the trees on which were fragrant and of many different kinds.

Comment: This region probably corresponds to the coast of modern-day Guinea-Bissau.

13) We passed this mountain range in two days’ sail and arrived at an immense bay on either side of which was low-lying land. From here we saw at night fires flaring up on all sides at irregular intervals.

14) Taking on water, we sailed along the coast for five days until we reached a great gulf, which the interpreters said was called West Horn. In it was a large island and in this island a marine lake itself containing an island. Landing on it we saw nothing but forest and at night many fires being kindled; we heard the noise of pipes, cymbals, and drums, and the shouts of a great crowd. We were seized with fear, and the interpreters advised us to leave the island.

15) We sailed away quickly and coasted along a region with a fragrant smell of burning timber, from which streams of fire plunged into the sea. We could not approach the land because of the heat.

16) We, therefore, sailed quickly on in some fear, and in four days’ time we saw the land ablaze at night; in the middle of this area one fire towered above the others and appeared to touch the stars; this was the highest mountain which we saw and was called the Chariot of the Gods.

Comment: Some authors have identified the streams of fire as lava and the mountain known as the ‘Chariot of the Gods’ as the volcano, Mount Cameroon. Others have differed and said that the streams of fire were probably grass fires, and the Chariot of the Gods is Mount Kaulima.

17) Following rivers of fire for three days we came to a gulf called the Southern Horn. In this gulf was an island like the one last mentioned, with a lake in which was another island. This was full of savages; by far the greater number were women with hairy bodies, called by our interpreters ‘gorillas.’ We gave chase to the men but could not catch any for they climbed up steep rocks and pelted us with stones. However, we captured three women who bit and scratched their captors. We killed and flayed them and brought their skins back to Carthage. This was as far as we could sail owing to lack of provisions.

Comment: This region probably corresponds to modern-day Gabon. It is tempting to put two and two together and think that these hairy savages were modern orangutan or gorillas. In fact, the manuscript of this account does use the term “gorilla” for these creatures. Thomas Savage, the nineteenth-century scientist, who first documented actual gorillas, was aware of the text of Periplus of Hanno. It was he who used the term “gorillas” mentioned in the text to refer to these animals. However, things aren’t clear-cut. Pliny, in reference to this event, refers to the tribe of these savages, as the Gorgades. As it so happens, the Greek spelling of “Gorgades” is very similar to  the Greek spelling of “Gorilla.” So, our name for these hairy apes may, in fact, be a copyist’s error.

At this point, the account ends.

Both men wrote accounts of their voyages, both of which the classical literature referred to as the “Periplus.” After they returned from their trips both their accounts were placed in the temple of Baal Hammon at Carthage. This temple is, presumably, where the Carthaginians kept the annals of their city. Someone, whose identity is unknown, then copied the texts and translated them into Greek. The originals were, presumably, lost when the Romans destroyed the city. The Greek translation of the “Periplus of Himilco” now exists only as excerpts in other works. Only the Greek translation of the “Periplus of Hanno” remains fully intact, which we just read.

The historicity of either account is impossible to verify. But since both reports come to us from the Greeks and the Romans, who didn’t appropriate the accounts for themselves, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they possess an element or two of truth.

Some historians, however, claim that the whole idea of Carthaginians venturing into the Atlantic is bunk. They do so on the following grounds: (1) Many geographic details in these accounts are lacking and are often wrong. (2) There is no archeological evidence of these voyages and their corresponding trading or colonization activities. (3) Both stories have a “fantastical adventure” feel to them. (4) In reference to Hanno’s voyage, though the winds on the way to Cameroon may have been favorable, the winds on the way back can hardly have been.

I, however, find these grounds unconvincing. Though I can’t grant full credence to the written accounts, there are no grounds to reject them either. The four points just presented can easily be rebutted as follows:

(1) The missing or incorrect geographical details could be a smokescreen. The Phoenicians were, after all, extremely secretive about their trading routes. Warmington notes that the portion of Hanno’s story that talks about the Moroccan coast is less accurate than the part that speaks of the regions further south. He suggests that since it was possible for the Greeks to venture beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the Carthaginians wanted to hide the details of the region immediately beyond them. However, they deemed it unlikely that the Greeks would venture too far south. That is why they were less careful with the particulars of the second part of the story than the details of the first.

Missing or incorrect details could also, however, be the result of corruption as the accounts were handed down the centuries. However, just because the reports became corrupted doesn’t mean that they are entirely wrong.

(2) Lack of archaeological evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that voyages didn’t happen. As we have already seen with Phoenician colonization, if the Carthaginians only established trading stations, the only remains left behind would have been organic and thus amenable to decay. Again, in reference to Hanno’s voyage, Punic influence in the archaeology is visible at Lixus and Mogador. Between them is a distance of 375 miles. It’s hard to imagine the Carthaginians establishing their presence at these two colonies and nowhere in between. So when Hanno’s account claims that they established six colonies beyond Lixus, we must accept it at face value, since there is nothing to contradict it, and the little evidence that is available, supports it.

(3) Fantastical elements in the series could either be part of the later corruption of the accounts or were part of the same smoke-screening efforts mentioned earlier. As Warmington again suggests, descriptions of savages, sounds of drums in the night and rivers of fire were stylistic motifs employed to scare the Greeks away from ever attempting such a voyage themselves. Indeed, many a philologist has shown the similarities between the story of Hanno’s travel and the story of Perseus and the Gorgon. That, however, doesn’t necessarily discount the authenticity of the journey itself.

(4) Though the winds back may have been unfavorable, these boats were oared and rowing back, though difficult was not impossible.

I will also add the following point: The most significant thing going for Hanno’s account is the remarkable correspondence of the various stops with the actual geography of the coast of Africa. Despite whatever other arguments may be brought forth against Hanno’s account, this highly accurate correspondence will still need an explanation. So, all in all, though the reliability of the voyages may be in doubt, they are indeed plausible and certainly have more going for them than not.

I will end today’s discussion at this point. The topic is long and fascinating, and I could have continued. But, then, I would have run out of material for the next episode, and that would have been bad. In the next episode, we will continue to explore how Carthage brought the metal trade under her control, and we’ll see how her hunger for these metals eventually ended up doing the same for all of North Africa. We’ll use the conquest of North Africa as a Segway into a discussion of the Carthaginian Empire as a whole.

If you have any comments, questions or concerns, please email me at ahsan.irfan@historytellerpodcast.com. You can visit the Historyteller blog at historytellerpodcast.com and can listen to the podcast on iTunes and Google Play. You can also find me on the usual social media site. I am on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linked In and Google Plus. You can find these links on the right-hand side of the historytellerpodcast.com website. If you liked this episode, please leave me a five-star review on iTunes. If you loved it, please help spread the word about it on your social media.

Alright, folks, that’s it for now!


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)
  3. Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)

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