Elaine Morgan on the Aquatic Ape Theory

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Coincidentally, this appeared over night in my inbox. My critique of it is here.

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25 thoughts on “Elaine Morgan on the Aquatic Ape Theory

  1. When she said “Somebody up there”, looking toward the ceiling, I quit listening.

    This is the first TED to make me worry about who vets the candidates.

  2. Of course the term â??aquatic apeâ? is a misnomer, itâ??s not about apes or australopiths (only about Homo s.s.), and itâ??s not about having been aquatic (a better term is â??littoralâ?), but â?? however one wants to name it â?? the Hardyâ??Morgan theory is beyond the slightest doubt: itâ??s obvious that Pleistocene Homo populations dispersed along coasts & rivers: how else could they have reached Flores? why else are all archaic Homo fossils found next to edible shellfish (work of J.Joordens, of S.Munro, and others), all over the Old World, from the Cape to Eritrea to Boxgrove to Dmanisi to Mojokerto, from at least 1.8 Ma until 125 ka?
    The problem IMO is that most anti-AAT people attack their own idea of what they believe AAT is (eg, dolphin-like ancestors). Their â??critiquesâ? are nearly invariably irrelevant, misunderstanding, misrepresenting, obsolete, not essential (attacking a possible sub-hypothesis), and illogical (because we differ from aquatic animals, we canâ??t have lived along coasts).
    IMO we have to discern 2 theories:
    – the littoral theory of Homo (AAT s.s.): Pleistocene diaspora along coasts & rivers,
    – the aquarboreal theory of apes: Mio-Pliocene hominoid adaptations to flooded forests (mangrove, gallery, swamp forests).
    For up-to-date insights, please
    – google â??econiche Homoâ? & â??aquarborealâ?,
    – or read our forthcoming ebook â??Was Man More Aquatic in the Past? Fifty Years after Alister Hardy: Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolutionâ? by M.Vaneechoutte, A.Kuliukas & M.Verhaegen eds 2011 Bentham Sci.Publ., with contributions of Elaine Morgan, Phillip Tobias, Michel Odent, Anna Gislén & others,
    – or see our recent paper â??Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foodsâ? in HOMO J.compar.hum.Biol.62:237-247, 2011.
    Marc Verhaegen http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/AAT

  3. But marc, you just moved the aquatic ape “theory/hypothesis” from where it originally started to a later period of time and a later evolutionary stage.

    And you’re wrong about the facts. It is not true that all archaic homo are associated with shellfish or littoral regions. Not even close.

  4. Nattering Nabob: Wallow in ignorance all you want. You’ll get no where if you don’t listen to people.

  5. There are many people to whom if you listen, you still get nowhere, or actually go backward if you accept things they say which are nonsensical. This is the case with
    Morgan’s TED talk

    And unfortunately this is true of other TED talks, such as
    this TEDx talk
    on “Vortex Math”.

  6. Just saw Laden’s comments:
    – “But marc, you just moved the aquatic ape “theory/hypothesis” from where it originally started to a later period of time and a later evolutionary stage.”
    I didn’t move anything: I’m not responsible for what Morgan’s or Laden’s think: it has always been obvious (eg, my first publication in 1985) that archaic Homo during the Pleistocene spread to different continents & even islands as far as Flores, the Cape & Pakefield (all littoral, with lots of shellfish, even barnacles) along coasts & rivers: not running over savannas.
    – “And you’re wrong about the facts. It is not true that all archaic homo are associated with shellfish or littoral regions. Not even close.” (1) I never said all archaic Homo are associated with littoral regions, to the contrary, I said that IMO they ventured inland along rivers! Please cite me correctly. (2) AFAWK, all archaic Homo fossils are associated with shellfish, see the work of Stephen Munro, eg, google “econiche Homo”. If Laden had known one exception, he had given it, I suppose… 🙂
    What is more likely: butchering stranded whales at the beach or drowned ungulates at rivers or lakes as seen in the fossil record throughout the Pleistocene and perhaps even killing herbivores hindered in their movements in shallow water or mud, or running after antilopes as some men in some remote populations sometimes do today in the E.African or Australian inland? The so-called “endurance running” hypothesis of archaic Homo is impossible, eg, H.erectus were much too heavy to have run frequently (eg, with parietals >2 x as thick as in gorillas), whereas cursorials are lightly built (Arabic vs Brabant horse, greyhound vs buldog).
    FYI, some recent info on the littoral theory:
    – M.Vaneechoutte, A.Kuliukas & M.Verhaegen eds 2011 “Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?” eBook Bentham Sci.Publ., with contributions of Phillip Tobias, Elaine Morgan, Michel Odent, Anna Gislén etc.
    – M.Verhaegen, S.Munro & M.Vaneechoutte 2011 “Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods” in HOMO J.compar.hum.Biol.62:237-247.
    – M.Vaneechoutte, S.Munro & M.Verhaegen 2012 “Reply to John Langdon’s review of the eBook: Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?” in press HOMO J.compar.hum.Biol.

  7. I forgot another recent publication (perhaps Phillip Tobias’ last):
    R.Bender, P.V.Tobias & N.Bender 2012 “The Savannah Hypotheses: Origin, Reception and Impact on Paleoanthropology” History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences 34:147-185
    The reconstruction of the human past is a complex task characterized by a high level of interdisciplinarity. How do scientists from different fields reach consensus on crucial aspects of paleo-anthropological research? The present paper explores this question through an historical analysis of the origin, development, and reception of the savannah hypotheses (SHs). We show that this model neglected to investigate crucial biological aspects which appeared to be irrelevant in scenarios depicting early hominins evolving in arid or semi-arid open plains. For instance, the exploitation of aquatic food resources and other aspects of hominin interaction with water were largely ignored in classical paleo-anthropology. These topics became central to alternative ideas on human evolution known as aquatic hypotheses. Since the aquatic model is commonly regarded as highly controversial, its rejection led to a stigmatization of the whole spectrum of topics around water use in non-human hominoids and hominins. We argue that this bias represents a serious hindrance to a comprehensive reconstruction of the human past. Progress in this field depends on clear differentiation between hypotheses proposed to contextualize early hominin evolution in specific environmental settings and research topics which demand the investigation of all relevant facets of early hominins’ interaction with complex landscapes.

  8. Marc, I could tell you about archaic homo fossils that are not associated with shellfish but I’m afraid you might change one of the definitions, like “archaic homo” or “shellfish” or “association” For example, what about the neanderthals in Mt. Carmel area? What about hominid remains in the Norther Cape of South Africa, or Border Cave? Also, do we look only at fossils assuming that artifacts are not necessarily real unless a hominid bone is found with them?

    The entire now mostly very arid region of the interior of South Africa is littered with middle, and late Acheulean sites and Middle Stone Age sites. Some of these sties are linked to rivers, but many, many are not. They are linked to seasonal springs, small streams, and in many cases (most north of the Orange river,by count) to systems of ephemeral pans.

    Being primates, humans and their ancestors are always near water, rely on water, have to have water. So do all primates. Are all primates “aquatic”?

    As we’ve discussed before, you and I are in agreement about the savannah hypothesis being a misleading oversimplification and only part of the story, and having inappropriately driven thinking on human evolution.

  9. AFAIK, we’re not in agreement at all about the savanna “hypothesis” (only a very few remote human populations recently evolved to live in savannas – nearly all humans all over the world still live at coasts & rivers), nor about our littoral past (the littoral theory is about Pleistocene Homo dispersing worldwide along coasts & rivers, it has nothing to do with apes or australopiths). AFAIK all – without exception – Homo sites are linked to coasts, lakes or rivers. I hadn’t read your “answer” until now, but Stephen Munro had. He’s a paleo-anthropologist, very knowledgeable in malacology, and sent me this:
    “Hi Marc, I came across this reply to you on Greg Laden’s blog. He obviously isn’t aware that rivers run to the Mediterranean Sea across the narrow coastal plain the Mt Carmel caves overlook, and from where the marine shells associated with the Skhul Cave fossils where presumably collected (Nassarius gibbosuslus, Acanthocardia deshayesii, Laevicardium crassum, and Pecten jacobaeus). Border Cave also has a river running close by, and the mostly anatomically modern human fossils found there include at least one associated with a marine shell (Conus) AFAIK. I guess by Northern Cape Laden means the sites of australopithecines in South Africa, which are not really relevant to the “archaic Homo” model being discussed (though crabs were found at the Taung site AFAIK, indicating at least some water). Nothing in his reply contradicts the idea that human ancestors may have dispersed around coasts and made their way inland via rivers, even if to seasonal springs and streams (while they were springs and streams, of course). Best, Stephen”
    For recent information on AAT, see our forthcoming conference with David Attenborough, Don Johanson etc.: “Human Evolution Past, Present & Future – Anthropological, Medical & Nutritional Considerations” London 8-10 May 2013
    And see “Was Man more aquatic in the past?”

  10. Stephen stil sent me this:
    You may also be interested in
    Vita-Finzi C & Stringer C 2007
    “The setting of the Mt.Carmel caves reassessed”
    Quaternary Science Reviews 26:436–440:
    “The abrasion of artefacts & pebbles in el-Wad & es-Skhul, which was originally ascribed to spring flow within the caves, is explained here by wave action, with the implication that during part of the Middle Palaeolithic the caves were on the shoreline rather than being separated from it – as they now are – by several kilometres of coastal plain and a height difference of some 45 m. U-series, thermo-luminescence (TL) & electron spin resonance (ESR) dating suggests that this occurred c 120 ka, when sea level in the eastern Mediterranean stood 5–6 m above its present position. It follows that Mt.Carmel has subsequently undergone some 40 m of uplift.”
    So according to this, some of the Mt.Carmel cave sites may in fact have been littoral? Stephen

  11. Remember folks, TAPHONOMY might have something to do with an association between fossils and water sources. How things get preserved matters a great deal.

  12. Hi Greg and Pat, nice to hear from you. But let’s just go back a little bit. The idea that humans may have evolved in environments in which they foraged regularly in water is not based in the first place on where fossils and stone tools are found, but on the anatomy, behaviour and physiology of living Homo sapiens (i.e., the combination of nakedness, subcutaneous fat, a linear body, very large brain, breath control abilities, poor olfactory abilities, poor climbing abilities, high need for water, sodium, DHA and iodine, external nose, small mouth with smooth palate, tool use etc.).

    Now, the fact that archaic human fossils and tools are virtually always associated with permanent water is not proof that humans evolved by foraging in and around water, but nor does it contradict the idea. It is Greg who said to Marc, “And you’re wrong about the facts. It is not true that all archaic homo are associated with shellfish or littoral regions. Not even close.” He then provided a few examples (including e.g. Mt Carmel), none of which, as far as I can see, contradict the basic idea that archaic Homo may have dispersed by following coasts and rivers.

    My PhD looked specifically at this question by looking at the molluscs associated with hominin sites, and the data showed that ‘erectine grade’ hominins (i.e., not australopiths or Homo sapiens, but ‘archaic’ Homo) were virtually always associated with permanent bodies of water and often these sites included large edible mussels.

    Pat Shipman, quite rightly, says we need to be aware of taphonomy. And I agree, we should not use the presence of hominins with watery environments as evidence for aquatic foraging in the past, but nor should this be used as evidence against such a scenario. Does this make sense?

    Of course, if there are sites in which ‘erectine grade’ populations are found (fossils or tools) that do not show any evidence of permanent water, this would be a problem for the littoral model of ‘archaic’ Homo dispersal. If either of you, Greg or Pat, are aware of such sites, please put them forward as evidence against the ‘littoral model of archaic Homo dispersal’.

    Thanks again for discussing this, the problem in the past I think for too long has been the lack of open and frank discussion on the subject, especially by experts such as Pat Shipman.

  13. Stephen, you seem to have said that propinquity to water (of sites//remains) is not really important yet there is plenty of evidence of it so it is important. I think you need to be more clear about what they implications of AAT are, in terms of testable hypotheses, rather than claiming that certain hypotheses are relevant and not relevant at the same time!

    In any event, there are plenty of middle stone age and a few early stone age (Acheulean) sites in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa that are a long walk from water. There always is temporary water nearby, but not permanent water. That is also where some of the earliest evidence of prepared platform technology seems to show up. This and other evidence may suggest that the shift from “erectine” to modern homo sapiens was earlier there than other places, so maybe those acheulean handaxe users were no longer following the AAT playbook. So there, I’ve argued against you and for you in the same paragraph!

    I am hoping to get a better definition of the AAT that more than two AAT proponents (real ones, like you and Marc, not just guys you find waiting outside the courtroom!) will sign on to that is specific about what is currently being proposed.

    I sent Marc an email about this but have not heard back yet.

  14. Greg, I appreciate your reply. A few points:

    1) I never said propinquity (cool word by the way) to water wasn’t important, but rather that the aquatic model isn’t based primarily on this evidence. There is a difference. If we were to say look at all these ‘archaic Homo’ sites associated with wet environments, they must have been living in wet environments, you, quite rightly, could say, no, that is just taphonomic bias, they could just as easily have been living in dry environments. What we actually say is, look at the features of Homo sapiens – these suggest that our ancestors once went through a stage where they must have spent considerable time in water (as opposed to dry environments). The fact that the fossils and tools of archaic Homo are associated with wet environments is in agreement with these observations. It, of course, doesn’t prove it.

    2) Please be specific about the sites you believe contradict the model that states that archaic Homo dispersed around coasts and via rivers to inland basins, swamps etc. References would be great. Specifically, what we say is heavy-boned ‘archaic’ Homo, or ‘erectine grade’ hominins with long, low braincases (e.g., H. erectus, H. ergaster, H. heidelbergensis), were primarily foragers in and around relatively shallow waters, for slow moving and immobile foods such as shellfish. We therefore PREDICT that their remains will be found around permanent water bodies that contain edible shellfish. If this prediction can be shown to be wrong, then the model is weakened.

    3) Marc and I have been very specific about our ideas, and Marc in particular has gone to great lengths to explain what his model is (I’ll admit, though, and perhaps Marc would agree, that his style is not always easy to follow). Here’s a quick summary of how I see Marc’s ideas, for what its worth:

    Whereas Morgan (and possibly most other AAT proponents?) see the most aquatic phase (which was never meant to be fully aquatic as far as I understand) as occurring at the time of the Homo-Pan split (e.g., 5–7 Ma), Verhaegen argues that the most aquatic phase, according to the fossil record, was mostly Pleistocene (e.g., when we first see large brains, external nose, loss of climbing abilities, larger body etc.). In Morgan’s model, australopithecines are post-aquatic, which (and I agree with Marc here), is probably wrong, whereas in Verhaegen’s model, australopithecines were most likely inland relatives of coastal hominins (aquarboreal) who dispersed around the coasts and up rivers giving rise to the various Homo populations (Java, Flores, Turkana, Dmanisi, Pakefield). The heavy bones of H. erectus especially, totally unsuitable for endurance running or any long distance terrestrial activity, would have been exactly what we would PREDICT in populations of hominins regularly foraging in relatively shallow waters (especially coastal waters) for immobile, sessile or slow moving foods such as shellfish.
    We’ve written numerous papers about this (Marc many more than I), so really there should be no confusion, misunderstanding or misinterpretation for people genuinely interested in finding out more about this alternative aquatic model (to the ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ Morgan model). And if anyone is confused thay can always ask.

    Essentially, the difference between humans and the other primates, in Marc’s model, and this of course follows the basic ideas of Hardy and Morgan, is that we learned to forage efficiently underwater, and adapted to this behaviour, whereas no other primate ever has, to the same extant, as far as we’re aware (not to say other primates can’t swim or even dive, just not as well as humans). The difference between Hardy, Morgan and Verhaegen, as far as I can see, is mainly to do with timing. Note that the part-time underwater foraging model does not negate the idea that terrestrialism may have been a constant and important factor in human evolution.

    The smoking gun, by the way, in the fossil record, that proves this littoral model (part-time shallow water foraging in the Pleistocene by ‘erectine grade’ hominins) is the presence of heavy cranial and post-cranial bones in Homo erectus.

    For more details please google:

    – ‘aquarboreal ancestors’
    – ‘econiche homo’ and/or
    – ‘pachyosteosclerosis archaic Homo’

  15. Stephen wrote: “Note that the part-time underwater foraging model does not negate the idea that terrestrialism may have been a constant and important factor in human evolution.”

    May be that’s where bipedal running steps in?

    The endurance running model is a sensible one, we have features that are hard to be explained otherwise (not even the AAT), e.g. sweating, foot arches. The endurance running model (ER) does not necessary contradict the endurance diving model (ED) which is a central thesis of the AAT.

  16. No, Chak, the endurance running idea of H.erectus is among the worst hypotheses ever proposed. For a thorough critique of this fantasy, just google “econiche Homo”.
    – Profuse themoregulatory sweating is AFAIK only seen in humans & sealions on land. Most savanna mammals don’t sweat at all, sweat wastes too much water & salt, see http://home.comcast.net/~ken-1080/savannah-disputed-2.doc.
    – Foot arches are not for running! Digiti- & even more so unguli-grady is for running. Even human runners run on their toes, not on their arches. Arches are (were) for swimming (& flat feet perhaps for wading).
    Of course, in a few remote inland human populations in E.Africa today, adult men sometimes use “dogged pursuit” in trying to catch some prey, but the women collect much more calories. This endurance running requires considerable technology & is very recent, ie, long after the sapiens LCA split c 150 ka or so. If you see in a medical practice the enormous foot problems, you wouldn’t talk about “born to run”, “Savannahstan”, “le singe coureur” & such nonsense.
    Endurance diving is perhaps not incorrect, but slow & shallow diving is clearer IMO.

  17. Hi Chak, not sure if you’re joking or not, but I have to concur with Marc on this, I would have thought endurance running was one of the least sensible ideas, at least in relation to the lifestyle of Homo erectus (or ‘erectine grade’ species, including Homo ergaster). I wouldn’t argue that endurance running is necessarily incompatible with a part-time foraging lifestyle, but in this case (Homo erectus), I see no evidence.

    Of course running is important in the evolution of modern humans, and endurance is too – not that the two are necessarily linked – but I agree with Marc that adaptations for running appear relatively late in the fossil record, and that running is more a derived characteristic of Homo sapiens, than a general characteristic of the genus Homo (e.g., Homo floresiensis shows no signs of having derived from an endurance runner).

    As runners, humans don’t appear to be particularly effective, especially compared to the very best; dogs, horses, antelopes and hyenas, which are all far superior in terms of running prowess, and we’re considerably slower at our fastest than practically every other terrestrial mammal I can think of.

    This need for a running explanation seems to stem from the assumption that there was some over-riding need to gain more sustenance from the ever expanding savanna grasslands in the Pleistocene when climatic shifts from wet to dry and back again were common. But this ‘myth’ of an origin on open plains is a pre-Darwinian construct, never subject to proper scientific testing, and which anyway has been given away by most ‘terrestrial defenders’ as a stawman invented by Elaine Morgan! If the scientific establishment once and for all let go of this savanna ‘myth’, there would suddenly be no need for an endurance running ancestor two million years ago.

    Arches in the feet are not for endurance running as far as I can see, otherwise we’d see arched feet in endurance runners. We don’t. Are arches important in terrestrial locomotion? I guess its possible, but even so this could easily be accommodated in a scenario which includes wading, walking, jogging or even running short distances along the beach, without the necessity of having to resort to sustained distance running. Other possible functions that may have influenced the evolution of the arch in the foot could be pushing off the bottom of the seafloor or rocky platforms while foraging for shellfish, climbing, swimming and/or diving. I’m not saying I know exactly why humans have an arch, but to assume it was for endurance running seems premature given what we know, I would have thought.

    As for efficient sweat cooling, I guess you need to be around water almost permanently for it to be effective, but I don’t see this as evidence for endurance running. Evidence of terrestrialism, sure, no problems, but terrestrialism does not require endurance running. Terrestrial activities could have included sustained foraging on land, but even today humans tend to forage on land without ever having to resort to endurance running.

    Modern humans can run, but as Marc has demonstrated, this seems to be a recent adaptation, and is possibly linked at least according to the fossil record, to the appearance of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens). The gradually more gracile body, loss of the long low skull, narrowing of the pelvis, and lengthening of legs, amongst other changes, may all be indications of a move away from a part-time underwater foraging lifestyle, to one that included a more terrestrial component, in which bipedal walking, chasing and hunting became more common, possibly derived from a phase that included increased wading and harpooning of fish from above (as Marc and others have argued). As they came to spend more and more time on land, they naturally would have become better runners, and since they already had good endurance skills (for sustained underwater foraging, for example) they also became capable endurance runners (so long as they had available water). Rather than ‘aquatic apes’, it’s probably more apt, in my opinion, to label Homo sapiens the ‘terrestrial humans’.

    The work of Bramble and Lieberman remains relevant here because running is obviously important in the development of Homo sapiens, and nobody could blame them for believing what essentially everyone else in palaeoanthropology has believed for the past hundred plus years. In my opinion we should forget about the endurance running model as a model to explain the lifestyle and adaptations of Homo erectus, and instead look within the last few hundred thousand years at the origins of running and modern human behaviour.

    By the way, I caught a documentary the other day, in which two women athletes were left to fend for themselves for a few days in the Okavango Delta; classic savanna territory. They hardly ate and complained a lot about increasing hunger. They made no attempt to run down the kudu they saw while out foraging one day. For some reason it didn’t occur to them that there was dinner, and all they had to do was run after it until it collapsed of exhaustion.

    The only thing they did appear to eat was a fish they caught with a hook while wading in a shallow swamp. One of the women was Tanya Streeter. I wondered whether she would have had any trouble finding enough food on a tropical coast.

    One more thing, Chak, you mentioned on another thread that chimps have some sort of automatic swim response, similar to that seen in humans, but that it lasts for only ten days, as opposed to the six months seen in human infants. Can you tell us more about this? Has a study been published?

  18. Stay Tuned for a special guest post on this blog by a famous ATT proponent who will argue the case in favor of the hypothesis. I was hoping to put it up days ago but we’ve had a lot of delays unrelated to the posting. Hopefully, tomorrow (Wednesday).

  19. As a swimming teacher who only wants to help the afraid of water I know how to bring out the aquatic ape inside of us by giving people back the natural psychological controls they need to learn safely. Those who take the longest to reveal their innate aquatic sense are the ones who are the most distracted from what matters about learning, rushing too fast, hold the most fear of water and least trust themselves in it. Of the people here who are arguing which of you have a good personal relationship with the water? Of course I may be wrong about the source of personal passion in these discussions but I do know that your own relationship with the water has a huge impact on how you feel when you are in it. Refer to Daniel Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking for thoughts on inherent bias in human heuristics. All I care about is helping those who want to learn to swim and the highly reasonable acceptance of AAT/H or littoral ancestors will help me do it in spades. What does trouble me is the possibility that swimming teaching itself has been negatively impacted by this long running and unecessary argument and that makes me feel sad and frustrated. If there is a shift coming and both sides can begin to melt into one then it will be great to be a part of a groundswell of new acceptance! Closed shops are unscientific and retrograde. Please open the floodgates! Swimcerely Andrea

  20. Thanks a lot, Andrea.
    For an update of the littoral hypothesis (so-called AAT), see the proceedings of the symposium (David Attenborough & Don Johanson) on human waterside evolution ‘Human Evolution: Past, Present & Future’ (London 8-10 May 2013):

    Special Edition Part 1 (end 2013)
    – Peter Rhys-Evans: Introduction
    – Stephen Oppenheimer: Human’s Association with Water Bodies: the ‘Exaggerated Diving Reflex’ and its Relationship with the Evolutionary Allometry of Human Pelvic and Brain Sizes
    – JH Langdon: Human Ecological Breadth: Why Neither Savanna nor Aquatic Hypotheses can Hold Water
    – Stephen Munro: Endurance Running versus Underwater Foraging: an Anatomical and Palaeoecological Perspective
    – Algis Kuliukas: Wading Hypotheses of the Origin of Human Bipedalism
    – Marc Verhaegen: The Aquatic Ape Evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions about the So-Called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
    – CL Broadhurst & Michael Crawford: The Epigenetic Emergence of Culture at the Coastline: Interaction of Genes, Nutrition, Environment and Demography

    Special Edition Part 2 (begin 2014) with 12 contributions.

    My contribution can be found at

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