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Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Special Issue 1 (2001):33–42

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Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today 2001 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:33-42 ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S LEGACY IN VENEZUELA GUSTAVO A. ROMERO-GONZÁLEZ * ABSTRACT – After nearly one hundred years since Humboldt’s return to Europe from the Americas, there is little about the famous traveler and naturalist that has not been written on already. A close scrutiny of his scientific legacy, however, reveals important scientific findings of his travels that had not been fully analysed in the past, namely his contributions to the study of palms and his influence on explorers and naturalists who followed his path in the American tropics. In the following essay, I explore in particular Humboldt’s contributions to the knowledge of the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes H.B.K.) and his relationship with the French chemist Jean Batiste Boussingault, who visited Venezuela in 1822-1823. The scientific accomplishments of Alexander von Humboldt have been the focus of many publications, as several of the contributions to this publication and their bibliographies will attest. It is evident that, nearly one hundred years after his return to Europe from the Americas, there is little about Humboldt that has not been written on already. A close scrutiny of his scientific legacy, however, reveals important scientific findings of his travels not explored in the past, namely his contributions to the study of palms and his influence on explorers and naturalists who followed his path in Venezuela. Humboldt is, no doubt, the only traveler, scientist, or philosopher to have had such a degree of influence on the history of Venezuela. Quoting Rodríguez Ortiz (1983: 7),1 “The esteem and the fervor for Alexander de Humboldt are in Venezuela a tradition of almost two hundred years.” There are few books on the natural history or geography of Venezuela that do not cite his works. His fame is second, perhaps, only to that of Simón Bolívar, and many buildings, mountains, and monuments are named after him. For instance, the first and * Orchid Herbarium of Oakes Ames, Harvard University Herbaria, 22 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. romero@oeb.harvard.edu. 1 The complete quote in Spanish is “El aprecio y el fervor por Alejandro de Humboldt son en Venezuela una tradición de casi doscientos años: pocas cosas han durado tanto tiempo sin corroerse o causar fastidio. Una corta vista al país, entre 1799 y 1800, con sus instrumentos, curiosidad, mediciones y notas, lo convirtieron en una configuración cultural sin exageraciones. No hay forma de documentarse acerca de ese momento de vísperas de la independencia y sobre las imágenes de ese tiempo sin que el nombre de Humboldt aparezca y deba ser citado. Eslabón de una cadena, marca de un camino: etnología, naturaleza, geografía, hacen del sabio un capítulo necesario por sí mismo y por las razones que esa tradición ha venido argumentando solidariamente” (Rodríguez Ortiz 1983: 7). 34 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 second highest peaks in Venezuela are named after Bolívar and Humboldt, respectively (the third highest after Humboldt’s companion, Aimé Bonpland). Humboldt’s works have always enjoyed a wide reading audience in Venezuela and many of them have been reprinted multiple times (Humboldt 1972, 1980, 1992,2 1993; Wionczek 1977), particularly his Relation Historique (Humboldt 1941, 1956, 1985, 1998). Humboldt himself has been the subject of many works published in Venezuela and, among the many authors, Arístides Rojas (1942) and Eduardo Röhl (1940, 1948) have provided excellent accounts of his life and travels.3 In the past few years there has been an outburst of Humboldtiana, including a movie (“Aire Libre,” by Luis Armando Roche), a play (“Humboldt & Bonpland, Taxidermistas” by Ibsen Martínez), and several exhibits (e.g., Guntau, Hardenet, and Pape 1993; Asociación Cultural Humboldt and Institute Goethe 1999). The scientific legacy of Humboldt, with emphasis on his work in Venezuela, is covered in detail in, among other publications, Jaime Labastida’s “Las Aportaciones de Humboldt a la Investigación Científica” (Labastida 1977; reprinted in Rodríguez Ortíz 1983: 123- 161; Labastida 1999: 51-83). In this essay, Labastida emphasized the following scientific achievements Humboldt documented while he was in Venezuela: in geography, his work on the communication between the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers, the Orinoco-Casiquiare bifurcation; in taxonomy, his work on Neotropical primates; in comparative anatomy and physiology, his work with the hyoid bone and the larynx of birds, monkeys, and crocodiles and on the respiration of crocodiles; in physics, his work on animal electricity. Not addressed by Labastida, but nonetheless remarkable, are Humboldt’s largely overlooked contributions to plant taxonomy and floristics, particularly his work on the flora of the Orinoco and the Río Negro and his contributions to the systematics and ethnobotany of Neotropical palms. The botanical results of the expedition of Humboldt and Bonpland appeared in the sixth part of Humboldt’s monumental work, Voyage aux Régions Équinoctiales du Nouveau Continent, fait in 1799-1804, 2 Cristóbal Colón y el Descubrimiento de América is actually a translation of Examen Critique de l’Histoire de la Géographie du Nouveau Continent et des Progrés de l’Astronomie Nautique aux XV et XVI Siècles Comprenant l’Histoire de la Découverte de l’Amerique, first published between 1836 and 1839. This Spanish translation is beautifully illustrated with works by Ferdinand Bellermann. 3 See also Humboldt (1980: 289-299) for C. Minguet’s comprehensive compilation of works about Humboldt and Bonpland. 2001 G.A. Romero-González 35 partie 6, Botanique. Undoubtedly, Humboldt relied on Aimé Bonpland and Carl S. Kunth to complete most of the numerous volumes of this particular series, but it is also true that these works would have never been published without Humboldt’s encouragement, dynamism, enthusiasm, and, most important of all, his financial support. Both Loefling (1758) and Jacquin (1760) had previously listed plants they had collected in Venezuela, but Flora Provinciarum Novæ Andalusiæ and Flora Orinoci et Fuminis Nigri (Humboldt, Bonpland, and Kunth 1825a, 1825b) represent the first comprehensive floristic treatments for any region of this country. Humboldt had a high regard for palms. Suffice to quote a passage from his Aspects of Nature: “ … palms, the loftiest and nobles of all vegetable forms, that to which the prize of beauty has been assigned by the concurrent voice of nations in all ages; for the earliest civilization of mankind belonged to countries bordering on the region of palms, and to parts of Asia where they abound” (Humboldt 1849, II: 20). Humboldt, Bonpland, and Kunth described some 20 species of palms, three of them from Venezuela: Corypha tectorum (currently referred to the genus Copernicia Mart. ex Endl.), Martinezia caryotaefolia (currently relegated to the synonymy of Aiphanes aculeata Willd.), and Mauritia aculeata (currently referred to the genus Mauritiella Burret). Humboldt, however, listed 20 additional palms that he and his collaborators could not describe for lack of flowering or fruiting material, and in his text he encouraged “… future travellers and explorers to better document them”4 (1816: 252-255 in the folio edition, 314-318 in the quarto edition; reprinted in Humboldt 1817: 225-240). Among these palms Humboldt listed, and provided short descriptions of and uses for, two types of “seje” or Oenocarpus spp. (the first species of this complex was not described until 1823), “jagua” or Attalea butyracea (Mutis) Wess. (described in 1778), “Cucurito” or Attalea maripa (Aubl.) Mart. (described in 1755), “manaca” or Euterpe precatoria Mart. (described in 1842), and “chiquichiqui” or Leopoldinia piassaba Wallace (described in 1853). This list, in essence, reads like the “Who’s who” of the economically important palms of Venezuela, particularly those found in the state of Amazonas. A careful reading of the list cited above gives us a hint of the volume of data Humboldt had to analyse when writing and coordinating the publication of the 32 volumes of the entire series of Voyages. The famous 4 The following is the original text in Latin: “Præter eas palmas, quas vel florentes ver fructiferas describendi nobis facultas data est, ut species peculiares agnovimus subsequentes, quas futuris peregrinatoribus, ut diligenter explorent, commendamus.” 36 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 “peach palm,” Bactris gassipaes Humboldt, Bonpland & Kunth, was originally described from one of Bonpland’s collections from Ibague, Colombia. The protologue was most likely prepared by Kunth, who described the fruits based at least in part on information supplied by Humboldt (e.g., the “pleasant” or “agreeable flavor” in “Drupa succulenta, oblonga, bipollicaris, flava, grati saporis, nuce obovata” most likely came from Humboldt). Had this description been written by Humboldt, he surely would have realized that the “Chonto vel chontaduro” of Ibague, Colombia, was conspecific with his “Pirijao vel Pihiguao” of San Fernando de Atabapo and San Balthasar, in Venezuela’s Amazonas state, the “peach palm,” of which he spoke highly: “In the vicinity of the mouths of the Guaviare and Atabapo grows the Piriguao, one of the noblest of palm trees, whose smooth and polished trunk,5 between 60 and 70 feet high, is adorned with a delicate flag-like foliage curled at the margins. I know no palm which bears such large and beautifully coloured fruits. They resemble peaches, and are tinged with yellow mingled with a roseate crimson. Seventy or eighty of them form enormous pendulous bunches, of which each tree annually ripens three. This fine tree might be called the peach palm. The fleshy fruits are from the luxuriance of vegetation most often devoid of seeds, and offer to the natives a nutritious farinaceous food which, like plantains and potatoes, can be prepared in a variety of ways (Humboldt 1849, I: 216-217) … among the fruits of palms none equals in beauty those of the Pirijao … they are egg-shaped, mealy … two or three inches thick” (Humboldt 1849, II: 137-138). Humboldt never solved this riddle, and he probably died not knowing he and his collaborators had formally described his much admired “peach palm.” However, he undoubtedly pioneered the study of this noble species, currently one of the most important non-timber forest products of tropical America (Mora U. and Gainza E. 1999). Like his work on palms, another under-emphasized contribution of Alexander von Humboldt is his role as a catalyst for continued discovery. Humboldt inspired many artists, explorers, and scientists, directly and indirectly, to travel to Venezuela following his path: this is perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the advancement of the arts and sciences in Venezuela. For the sake of brevity I will provide only one detailed example herein. Jean Batiste Joseph Dieu-Donné Boussingault (1802-1887), a French chemist, was among the volunteers recruited in Paris in 1822 by Antonio 5 The plants Humboldt observed “in the vicinity of the mouths of the Guaviare and Atabapo” were unusual: the stems of this palm are “spiny at [the] internodes, rarely without spines” (Henderson 1995: 191). 2001 G.A. Romero-González 37 Zea6 to serve the cause of the new Republic of Colombia.7 Boussingault arrived in Venezuela 22 November 1822 and stayed until early May 1823, when he crossed what is now the Venezuelan-Colombian border between San Antonio del Táchira and Cúcuta. During his residency, Boussingault measured barometric pressure, temperature, relative humidity, and geographical coordinates along his route, and collected samples of minerals, plants, and animals for chemical analysis. By 1867 the Catalogue of Scientific Papers of the Royal Society London listed 147 scientific papers authored or co-authored by Boussaingault, many based on observations or samples collected in Venezuela, including the first detailed chemical analysis of the latex of the “milk-tree” (Brosimum sp., Moraceae; Boussingault and Rivero 1823) and of the arrow-head poison “curare” (Boussingault and Roulin 1828).8 Humboldt became interested in Boussingault’s upcoming trip to the Americas, and they met for the first time in Paris in 1822. Humboldt provided considerable assistance: he donated several instruments for the expedition, trained Boussingault in their use, and even loaned a sum of money to the young traveler. Humboldt also encouraged Boussingault to repeat some of his own measurements that he was uncertain about, and to perform specific tasks such as the analysis of the latex of the “milktree.” Humboldt later reprinted Boussingault and Rivero’s paper and reported many of Boussingault’s barometric measurements in his Relation Historique (e.g., the “milk-tree” in “Notes du Livre IX,” G; Humboldt 1825, 1826). Boussingault visited Humboldt several times and provided a candid depiction in his memoirs9 (Boussingault 1892: 180; also reproduced, in Spanish, in Boussingault 1985: 107; 1994: 165-166; Humboldt 1980: 237): 6 Francisco Antonio Zea (1766—1822) was an accomplished botanist (he participated in “La Real Expedición Botánica del Nuevo Reino de Granada,” and later was Director of the Botanical Garden of Madrid, and Professor of Botany (Ospina 1973) but apparently a poor administrator (Masur 1969: 289). In 1819, Simón Bolívar sent him to Europe as the first Embassador of “Gran Colombia” to, among other missions, enlist the services of scientists and professionals for an engineering school and a museum of natural history to be founded in Bogotá (Ocampo López 1997). 7 “La Republica de Colombia,” as proclaimed in “El Congreso de Angostura” in 1819, was made up of what are now Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela (Briceño 1997). 8 Boussingault’s scientific papers published up to 1848 were translated into Spanish by J. Acosta (See Boussingault 1849). 9 The following is the original text in French: “Humboldt avait alors cinquante-cinq ans, taille moyenne, bien prise, cheveux blancs, regard indéfinissable, physionomie mobile, spirituelle, marquée de quelques grains de petite vérole, maladie qu’il avait contractée à Carthagène des Indes. Son bras droit était paralysé des suites d’un rhumatisme gagné en couchant sur les feuilles mouillées dans le forêts des bords de l’Orénoque. Quand il voulait écrire, lorsqu’il voulait vous offrir sa main droite, il relevait avec sa main gauche l’avant-bras infirme à la hauteur nécessaire. Son custome était resté le même depuis l’époque du Directoire: habit bleu, boutons jaunes, gilet jaunes, culotte en étoffe rayée, bottes à revers, les seules qui se trouvaient à Paris en 1822, cravate blanche, chapeau noir bossué, éreinté” (Boussingault 1892: 180). 38 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 “Humboldt was then fifty-five years old, of medium height, fit, had white hair, indefinable gaze, mobile physiognomy, spiritual, marked with some smallpox scars, a disease he contracted in Cartagena de Indias.10 His right arm was paralyzed due to rheumatism he developed laying down on wet leaves along the Orinoco. When he wanted to write [or] when he wanted to offer us his right hand, he raised the diseased forearm with his left hand to the necessary height. His attire was the same [worn] during the time of the directory: blue dress, yellow buttons, yellow vest, striped-fabric breeches, top boots, the only ones left in Paris in 1822, white tie, [and] black, crush-in hat.” Most interesting of all, Boussingault gives us a humorous description of Humboldt’s humble quarters in Paris11 (Boussingault 1892: 180- 181; also reproduced, in Spanish, in Boussingault 1985: 107, 1994: 166; Humboldt 1980: 237): “I expected to find the chamberlain of the King de Prussia in a splendid apartment. I was astonished when I entered the dwelling of the famous traveler: a small room, a bed without curtains [placed] in the same room where he worked, four straw-bottomed chairs, a large fir table, on which he wrote; it was covered with numerical calculations… When the surface of the table was filled of figures, he brought a carpenter to plane it.” Humboldt and Boussingault were frequent correspondents (see letters in Humboldt 1905), and Humboldt many times served as intermediary for Boussingault’s publications which he highly respected: “You know, from the memoirs communicated to the Institute and the reports of M. Cuvier, the extraordinary mass of observations, measurements, analyses ... made by MM. Boussigault, professor of chemistry in Bogotá. This traveller has recently changed all the geography of [the] Meta [river]: he also [measured] the altitudes of the path from Caracas to Bogotá. The memories of chemistry and physics sent by MM. Boussingault, Rivero and Roulin to MM. Arago, Gay-Lussac and to me were successively published in Annals of Chemistry; but of the letters of these travellers, a large number of short notes and measurements still remain to be published which, arranged chronologically, could find place in your Bulletin. One would intercalate, summarized, particularly what refers to geology. I dare to ask you, Sir, if you believe you could 10 According to von Hagen (1945: 86, 1946: 142), Humboldt’s passport issued by Alphonse de Santos-Rollin, “Chamberlain to Her Majesty King of Prussia and Prussian Minister Plenipotentiary to the French Republic,” indicated Humboldt already had smallpox marks by the time he arrived in the New World, and Boussingault’s information appears to be incorrect. Humboldt’s passport issued by the Spanish crown included no description of his persona (see transcription in Humboldt 1980: 220). 11 The following is the original quote in French: “Je m’attendais à trouver le chambellan du roi de Prusse dans un splendide appartement, mon étonnement fut grand quand j’entrai chez le célèbre voyageur: une petite chambre à coucher, un lit sans rideaux, dans la pièce où il travaillait, quatre chaises en paille, une grande table en sapin, sur laquelle il écrivait: elle était recouverte de calculs numériques, de logarithmes. Lorsque la surface de la table était remplie de chiffres, il faisait venir menuisier pour la raboter. Presque pas de livres, les Tables de Callet, la Connaissance des temps” (Boussingault 1892: 180—181). 2001 G.A. Romero-González 39 employ these fragments that I have the duty to publish in a French journal, under this title: Extracts of letters addressed to M. de Humboldt by M. B[oussingault] (I would add some notes to it). If you accept my proposal, Sir, the notes a and b would be merged by me in the extracts, and I would beg not to insert them separately. There will be many [numerical] figures, and I am unfortunately forced to ask you to print the whole without restriction: it is an obligation which I contracted with Mr. Boussingault, who wants to deposit somewhere the first results of his precious work” (letter of Humboldt to de la Roquette dated Paris, 21 March 1825; Humboldt 1865: 241-242; reprinted in Spanish in Humboldt 1980: 181).12 The list of additional artists, explorers, and naturalists who came to Venezuela in the 19th and 20th centuries, inspired directly or indirectly by Alexander von Humboldt, is quite extensive (see Rojas-Mix, 1988, for examples in the fine arts), and here I will provide only a short list: Robert Hermann Schomburgk, a Prussian naturalist and explorer. Schomburgk (1838) described Humboldt as “The greatest traveller of his own time, or of any time.” Humboldt wrote the preface and a chapter in Schomburgk’s Travels in Guiana and the Orinoco (“Concerning certain important features of the geography of Guiana;” Humboldt 1841, 1931; see Schomburgk 1840a, 1840b, 1841, 1931); Moritz Richard Schomburgk, younger brother of Robert Hermann, who approached Roraima from Venezuelan territory in 1843. He stated in the preface to the first volume of his Reisen (see Schomburgk 1922), “When my brother … returned to the field of his former labours, it was Alexander von Humboldt through whose means I received the assistance from Our Most Gracious Sovereign, that enabled me to accompany him to Guiana ...” (Schomburgk 1847-1848, 1894, 1922-1923); Ferdinand Bellermann, an accomplished Prussian artist who painted in Venezuela in 1842-1846. Humboldt assisted Bellermann in seeking the support of the King of Prussia for his trip, and in Venezuela he documented plants and landscapes primarily in regions explored by Humboldt; 12 The following is the original text in French: “Vous connaissez par les mémoires communiqués à l’Institut et les rapports de M. Cuvier la prodigieuse masse d’observations, de mesures, d’analyses… faites par M. Boussigault, professeur de chimie à Bogota. Ce voyageur a récemment changé toute la géographie de la Meta: il a aussi nivelé le chemin de Caracas à Bogota. Les mémoires de chimie et de physique envoyés par MM. Boussingault, Rivero et Roulin à MM. Arago, Gay-Lussac et à moi ont été successivement publiés dans les Annales de Chimie; mais it reste dans les lettres de ces voyageurs encore bien de petites notions et des measures à publier qui, en les coordonnant chronologiquement, pourraient trouver place dans votre Bulletin. On intercalerait en abrégé ce qui a plus particulièrement rapport à la géologie. J’ose vous demander, Monsieur, si vous croyez pouvoir employer ces fragments que j’ai le devoir de faire insérer dans un journal français, sous ce titre: Extrait des lettres adressées a M. de Humboldt par M. B[oussingault]. (j’y ajouterai quelques notes). Si vous accédez à ma proposition, Monsieur, les notes a et b seraient refondues par moi dans les extraits, et je vous prierais de ne pas les insérer séparément. Il y aura beaucoup de chiffres, et je suis malheureusement forcé de vous demander d’imprimer le tout sans restriction: c’est une obligation que j’ai contractée envers M. Boussingault, qui veut déposer quelque part les premiers résultats de ses précieux travaux.” 40 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Hermann Karsten, a Prussian naturalist who, according to Röhl (1948: 117), “Humboldt begged to visit Venezuela” (see Karsten, 1848); Richard Spruce, a British explorer and plant collector who visited Venezuela’s Amazonas state in 1853-1854. When Spruce crossed the Brasilian-Venezuelan border along the Río Negro he was pleased to enter what he called Terra humboltiana (see Spruce 1908, 1970); Alexander Hamilton Rice, an American medical doctor, traveler, and cartographer who accurately mapped many rivers in northern South America, including the upper Orinoco river, and who cited Humboldt in most of his publications (see Rice 1921); Volkmar Vareschi, a German ecologist, first arrived in Venezuela in 1950, to re-create part of Humboldt’s travels. He later returned and stayed until his death in 1991 (see Vareschi 1959a, 1859b); Karl Weidmann, a Swiss photographer, who first arrived in Venezuela in 1950 with Volkmar Vareschi, and who established residence in Venezuela to become one of the leading photographers of the country (see Weidmann 1986, 1998). I believe Humboldt’s greatest legacy continues today — his ability to inspire adventure and new discoveries. LITERATURE CITED ASOCIACIÓN CULTURAL HUMBOLDT- INSTITUTO GOETHE. 1999. El Retorno de Humboldt [exhibit book]. Oscar Todtmann, Editores, Caracas. BOUSSINGAULT, J.-B. 1849. Viajes Científicos a los Andes de Ecuatoriales [translated by J. Acosta]. Libreria Cstellana, Paris. BOUSSINGAULT, J.-B. 1892. Mémoires de J.-B. Boussingault I. Typographie Chamerot et Renouard, Paris. BOUSSINGAULT, J.-B. 1985. Memorias de Boussingault I. Banco de la Republica, Bogota. BOUSSINGAULT, J.-B. 1994. Memorias de Boussingault I. Biblioteca V Centenario Colcultura, Bogota. BOUSSINGAULT, J.-B., and M. de RIVERO. 1823. Mémoire sur le lait de l’arbre (Palo de Vaca). Annales de Chimie 23: 219-224. BOUSSINGAULT, J.-B., and F. D. ROULIN. 1828. Examen chimique du curare, poison des Indiens de l’Orénoqué. Annales de Chimie 39: 24-37. BRICEÑO P.M. 1997. Congreso de Angostura. Pp. 968-969, In Diccionario de Historia de Venezuela I, Fundación Polar, Caracas. GUNTAU, M., P. HARDENET, and M. PAPE (compilers). 1993. Alejandro d Humboldt: La Naturaleza, Idea y Aventura [exhibit book]. Projekt Agentur, Essen. HAGEN, V.W. von. 1945. South America Called Them. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. HAGEN, V.W. von. 1946. Sudamerica los Llamaba. Editorial Nuevo Mundo, Mexico. HENDERSON, A. 1995. The Palms of the Amazon. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1817. De Distributione Geographica Plantarum. Libraria Græco-Latino-Germanica, Paris. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1825. L’arbre de la vache. Relation Historique du Voyage aux Régions Équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent [quarto edition] III: 186-187. 2001 G.A. Romero-González 41 HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1826. L’arbre de la vache. Relation Historique du Voyage aux Régions Équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent [octavo edition] XI: 113-119. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1841. Über einige Wichtige Punkte der Geographie Guyana’s. Pp. 1-39, In R. H. Schomburgk, Reisen in Guiana und am Orinoko. Georg Wigand, Leipzig. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1849. Aspects of Nature I & II [in one volume, translated by “Mrs. Sabine”]. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1865. Correspondance Scientifique et Littéraire [compiled and with a biographical note by M. de la Roquette]. E. Ducrocq, Paris. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1905. Lettres Américaines d’Alexandre de Humboldt [compiled and with an introduction and notes by E. T. Hamy]. Librairie Orientale & Américaine, Paris. HUMBOLDT, A. von. 1931.Concerning certain important features of the geography of Guiana. 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