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Why did prehistoric people make cave art?

Humans have been painting caves for tens of thousands of years. It all started back in the European Upper Palaeolithic, around 35,000 years ago (and continued throughout that period). But what motivated them to start drawing in the first place?

A lot of effort has been spent trying to figure that out. Sadly we haven’t found a definitive answer, but there are many good hypotheses. Here are the top three.

The cave of Altamira, populated by very sophisticated cavemen (and women)

The cave of Altamira, populated by very sophisticated cavemen (and women)

1. They just felt like it

One of the earliest explanations for cave art is “arts for art’s sake”. This was first proposed back when these images were originally discovered in the 19th century. As the name implies, the idea is that our ancestors just did it because they were bored. Because they found the pictures pretty. Because they wanted to. There was no real goal behind it, it was the prehistoric equivalent of a doodle (Bahn, 2008).

Since the 19th century this idea has fallen out of favour, given the incredible amount of effort people invested in the art. They created scaffolding to reach high areas, ventured into deep, dark and dangerous areas (which involved the invention of the oil lamp) and much more. Clearly, many argued, they were investing too much in this artwork just for it to be a doodle (White, 2003).

2. People got high and started drawing

So what do archaeologists do when they don’t know quite what something is? Claim it’s part of a ritual! Which they did, suggesting that ceremonies were conducted in these caves and that the artwork was the result.

There is quite a bit of evidence in support of this hypothesis. For example, many caves – such as the famous site of Chauvet – were never inhabited by people, being used only for art. Perhaps these were sacred locales (Zorich, 2011). Further, many of these sites all have a particular orientation, much like many later buildings of ritual significance (Hayden and Villenueve, 2011).

Some lions from Chauvet cavet

Some lions from Chauvet cavet

The idea that cave art was ritualistic in nature culminated in the “shamanism hypothesis” which posited that cave art was the result of a tribe’s mystics documenting their spiritual journey. And by “spiritual journey”, I mean getting high and thinking they’ve travelling to another realm.  Researchers noted that many of the weird things people see whilst on halluganagenic drugs (so-called entoptic phenomena) bear a surprising resemblance to the images recorded in cave art (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).

Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)" src="" width="246" height="281" /> Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)

Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)

For a while it seemed like this might be the answer, until others noted that of all the entoptic phenomena documented whilst on hallucinogens, only a tiny proportion matched cave art. If it were truly a result of taking drugs, why didn’t the rest? Besides, the drugs that were used in these tests were modern synthetics that weren’t available to our ancestors (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).

Others have proposed other ways in which cave art might be ritualistic. For example, Bednarik (2008) pointed out that many of the footprints found in caves were made by children, and the size of some of the hand stencils also match the size of a kids hand. Based on this he suggests the art was part of some kind of “coming of age” ritual.

3. A prehistoric encyclopedia

Of course, not everyone has found the ritual idea convincing. Some have suggested that there was a more practical reason for the artwork. Mithen (1988) realised that the changing climate meant that many species could disappear from a region for a long time.

He suggested that cave art was an attempt to keep a record of species seen before, preserving the knowledge of them for when they returned. This, he believed, explained why many images showed twisted feet (to record what tracks they made) and why they focused on the rarer animals, like mammoths.

Studies of the art have shown that the animal drawings are very accurate; with the markings on the art aligning with reality. In fact, some of the drawings depicted spotted horses; which people always thought were a modern development. That is, until genetic analysis revealed there was spotted horses back in the Palaeolithic. Clearly these images reflect real animals.

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

This debate continues to this day, with new books and papers being published that advance one idea or the other. Personally, I suspect that we’ll never hit on the answer because there is no answer. There are thousands of examples of cave art, stretching across tens of thousands of years. There probably was no single reason for making art that spanned this huge stretch of time and space; just like how all artists today draw for different reasons. All of these hypotheses are probably true to a certain extent. Maybe one cave was a doodle, another was ritualistic, but they weren’t all doodles because there was no universal reason for their manufacture.

Regardless of the ultimate explanation (if any), they remain a beautiful and fascinating link to our long-gone heritage.

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Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182

Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic?.Cambridge Archaeological Journal21(03), 331-355.

Lewis-Williams, J., Dowson, T., Bahn, P., Bandi, H., Bednarik, R., Clegg, J., Consens, M., Davis, W., Delluc, B., Delluc, G., Faulstich, P., Halverson, J., Layton, R., Martindale, C., Mirimanov, V., Turner II, C.,  Vastokas, J., Winkelman, M. and Wylie, A. 1988. The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology, 29(2):201-245.

Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327

White, R. H., (2003). Prehistoric Art: the Symbolic Journey of Humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams

Zorich, Z. 2011. A Chauvet Primer. Archaeology, 65(2).

Hey world, did you miss me?

80 thoughts on “Why did prehistoric people make cave art?”

  1. mgm75 says:

    Thanks for this. One of my major frustrations in moving away from my interest in the palaeolithic was the focus on too much theorising over parietal and mobiliary art. I found the theorists far too much of a reflection of the political eras they were studying in and ultimately tragic that they could rarely see it. I would love to see Altamira some day, and Lascaux too (though I understand that the public can’t visit this any more and that the French government have created a superb replica).

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem restricted to art research. Many palaeanthropologists studying a range of topics tend to become rather wrapped up in their own theory, overstating the confidence with which it should be held. Evolutionary psychology in particular is susceptible to this. Don’t get me wrong, most of these are good ideas worth investigating, they just aren’t as well supported as some researchers would have you believe. That’s why I try to remain a bit wary of these ideas, without being outright dismissive.

      And yes, you are correct. Only the replica Lascaux can be visited these days (although it is of almost perfect quality). I hear they’re building a second one to cope with demand. You can still go in the original Chauvet, since they found it recently and were able to put in safe guards before thousands of people ruined the place.

      1. Anonymous says:

        don’t understand.

    2. klrickard says:


  2. Ralph Gironda says:

    I must say it was yesterday that I commented to myself I have not received an email from you since that awful interview of the two fundamentalists. It took me some time to recover from their ineptness. However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression. The evidence should be interpreted individually. But I would go with ritualistic interpretations, but leave room for graffiti and others.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I’m glad someone missed me, although you’ll be displeased to hear that there are plans for me to have another chat with those fundamentalists. Hopefully without the connection problems, so I can try and form a cogent point this time!

      Although ritual is a good explanation that can probably account for an awful lot of the art, I think most people underestimate just how much fun it is. I’ve had a chance to go cave painting in my universities new palaeolithic lab and it is brilliant. After spending 3 hours playing with pigment and laughing with friends “art for art’s sake” seems a lot more plausible than other researchers seem to suggest.

      1. Ralph Gironda says:

        When I first started my studies in archaeology if an archaeologist found a large building it was label a temple without too much investigation. Now there are so many applications to a site it cannot be that much misinterpreted. There have been chemical studies of many prehistoric paintings and this has improved interpretation immensely. After all discoveries in archaeology come about when new technologies are applied to the archaeological record.
        As for your interview I really think that both of you were unprepared only because in an interview it would be best to have the questions know and the answers prepared before you start. This would bring to the interview some sense of clearance and flow.
        FYI: I will be taking a course in Human Evolution from Coursea this September. Looking forward to it.

      2. Adam Benton says:

        Whilst technology has undoubtedly been a huge boon to archaeology I think some of the most significant changes are changes in attitude. Of increasing skepticism towards many of the ideas which were simply asserted in the past. For example (you’ll have to forgive me, I can’t remember the names) for years people had been claiming a particular artefact was a lunar calender. Then someone came along and just said “hang on a minute, can we be sure about that?” and it turns out we couldn’t.

        I did try and organise a more focused discussion beforehand, but they refused to be specific about what they wanted to talk about. And lo, we wound up spending half of it talking about what makes someone good. Which is a topic I’m obviously very knowledgeable about.

      3. mgm75 says:

        Adam, you don’t mean the Sky Disc by any chance? this weird thing. I remember looking at this in one of my second year lectures on arch. theory.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          The one I was referring too is an antler from La Marche. I don’t think it has a special name

      4. Edward Wilcock says:

        The answer is – because they had ample time on their hands so why shouldn’t they paint on stone.
        Why is there so much writen about this, going off at tangents and concluding nothing.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          The big reason for looking into this is that some of these explanations imply that these people had symbolism; which in turn is a strong indicator of language. Language is unique to humans, so figuring out how and why that developed is fascinating.

        2. Linda Stanley says:

          I think the picture drawings were the predecessor of writing. The paintings were their way of telling a story for others who came after. I don’t suppose they were thinking the paintings would be there for so many thousands of years though.

          1. Adam Benton says:

            There may well be some similarities between writing and cave art, but there are also a great many differences. There’s no real syntax in cave art, for example. So it doesn’t seem to be directly ancestral; even though it may have been the breeding ground for some other ideas.

      5. KRD says:

        I have no idea who you people are but the question of why did prehistoric “man” create is simply answered by the question, Why did historical man create the apple computer, the pill the bomb the stock market the welfare state ext ect ect….You may say, money but then that still answers the question. Your problem is that you believe man is somehow advanced neurologically beyond those who painted cave walls. You live in the simulacra. Also, if you believe fundamentalism is a primitive beliefs of fools why talk to them. You are so willing to believe that all of everything comes from an exploding particle infinitely small but the idea of turning water to wine is the beliefs of idiots. When you explain without question how the big bang is possible I will turn my back on Christ. PS I do believe in math and physics and I am not a good Christian.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          The big mystery surrounding cave art is because it’s the first time humans started doing something like this. The question isn’t so much “why did the make cave art?” but “why did they start?” Did something change in their brains, their culture or their technology? Or was it the natural progression of existing phenomena? Whilst we don’t know the answer there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it wasn’t a neurological change. The people who made the first cave art are the same as us, mentally. Which just makes it all the more fascinating.

          And I don’t think fundamentalists are idiots. There’s a reason I call my Monday posts on the subject “mistaken Mondays” rather than “here is an idiot on Monday”. That said, I’ve encountered so many examples of misrepresenting data from the large creationist ministries – such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research – I’m convinced those people are either incompetent or deliberately deceitful.

          1. Robert says:

            Adam, I am intrigued by your statement that the evidence suggests cave art didn’t come about through neurological changes. It sounds like there is some substantive research on this subject. Can you recommend some reading material on this subject? Thanks for your time in helping a fellow traveler trying to understand something that seems important in the human evolutionary process.

          2. Adam Benton says:

            Various artistic things gradually emerge over a long period of time. This is the opposite of the sudden appearance you would expect if there was a mutation.

            This same pattern is seen in many developments previously thought to also be mutations. Some fancy tools were thought to appear suddenly, but evidence of a more gradual origin was later found.

    2. mgm75 says:

      However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression.

      Call me a cynic, but any researcher pushing such a banal concept wouldn’t get much funding! 😀

      1. Adam Benton says:

        I feel like there’s some funding potential, providing you don’t just promise obvious, almost tautological statements (one of the failings of early processual archaeology)

        1. ralph gironda says:

          Jargon-filled processional archaeology is a plague upon archaeology. What are these people talking about? They only confuse the issue. Can’t they talk in understandable language? Are they being elitist? They have taken over the profession and left it in shambles. Research should first start with reviewing (and listing) all available theories and than testing them. The banal one might be the strongest. There is so much information we can pull from the evidence.

          I am having trouble replying to you through the reply icon below so I am sending my reply through my reply email. {The reply box is not visuable for me to continue my message.)

          Date: Tue, 23 Jul 2013 21:23:50 +0000 To: [email protected]

          1. Adam Benton says:

            In theory I support processual archaeology, the idea of trying to test various ideas. In practice it can be a truly horrific beast, but unfortunately it’s not the only one. Have you ever heard of some of the post-processual talk of lifeways? I’ve been studying the subject for 3 years now and still have no idea what on earth a lifeway is, except that people of the past had them and this is a big deal.

            The comment box problem is rather weird, I’ve experienced it on other blogs too, so suspect the problem is at WordPress’s end

          2. ralph gironda says:

            There is one good book that I recommend for processional archaeology, AN INTRODUCTION TO MODERN ARCHAEOLOGY by Ned Woodall. It shows you step by step how to do processional archaeology. It is jargon-free and simple to understand. If all processional archaeological books were like this processional archaeology might have an impact on avocational archaeologists like my self. Read the first paragraph of Lewis Binford’s ARCHEOLOGY AS ANTHROPOLOGY and tell me what he is saying? Lifeway may be a term for culture. Why they can’t say culture is puzzling. It all started with McKern’s Midwest taxonomic classification. I tried to juxtapose the European names to McKern’s but to no avail. I am still trying. The only thing somebody came up with is Mesolithic for the Paleoindian stage.

            Date: Thu, 25 Jul 2013 20:53:03 +0000 To: [email protected]

          3. pernell says:

            why did people make cave art

      2. Ralph Gironda says:

        But it may be true. There are two kinds of art that I can think of: cave art and rock art. Why would somebody go deep into a cave draw pictures. It would seem ritualistic. Rock art might have a different meaning.

      3. mgm75 says:

        Personally, I think that post-processualism often goes too far. Reading works by the likes of Ian Hodder always made me want to claw my eyes out. But saying that, reading the bickering between him and Lewis Binford sometimes made for an entertaining read.

          1. mgm75 says:

            I did read (some of) it, it scarred me so much that I couldn’t bring myself to mention it! 🙂

          2. pernell says:

            do you know why they make cave art?????

      4. Adam Benton says:

        The worst part is where landscape archaeology and lifeways collide. You wind up with people wandering around sites going “this makes me feel in awe, thus it would’ve impacted ancient lifeways.” It seems to me to be the biggest pile of drivel I ever did hear

        1. mgm75 says:

          My Master’s is in Landscape Archaeology so I feel your pain brother 🙁

          One Dartmoor expert – can’t remember his name – used to take a window frame up to the moor when he took students on a field trip. This he would take to places like Merevale and Grimspound and… no joke… hold the window frame up so his students could look through it and “experience” the village and its surrounding landscape.

          1. mgm75 says:

            Exeter… Dartmoor ought to have been a clue to that!

          2. Ralph Gironda says:

            Email from across the Pond from the Colonies: I took at look at Dartmoor and it seems like a great place to do not only archaeology but geology. A far cry from Sherlock Holmes.

          3. mgm75 says:

            One of my favourite places to go walking, along with Exmoor just a few miles to the North East 🙂

          4. Ralph Gironda says:

            It looks like Exmoor was studied more than Dartmoor. There is even a book on it’s archaeology.

          5. mgm75 says:

            Your freer to develop your own ideas at any good university. When you get to Master’s level most lecturers expect you to challenge their ideas.

      5. Adam Benton says:

        Thing is, I’d wager most people with an interest in archaeology have done something similar. Just stood in a field and tried to throw your mind back and imagine the past. But I doubt most people would try and make that a field of research.

  3. nonentiti says:

    Great post, Adam. I like the way you simply explain the different viewpoints without saying one is right. However, wouldn’t the simple answer be that, just like we do today, they had multiple reasons, so we cannot simply attribute all cave art to the same idea. It isn’t just in your field that most academics take this naïve attitude that people in the past were all identical. But every new theory is a reflection of what motivates the theorists, not the cave people. Besides, “art for art sake” today is not about doodles, but about art for its beauty.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That’s a good answer, and ultimately the one I arrived at the end of the post. At the end of the day I suspect most researchers would concede that there are likely multiple explanations for the art; but most don’t really act like it. I guess they want their theory to be important and not relegated to one of many. In much the same way that the discoverer of important fossil hominins will proclaim that their species is the actual ancestor of humanity

  4. Artem Kaznatcheev says:

    I wonder how this relates to the origins of religion, its interaction with cooperation, and early temples like Gobekli Tepe. In particular, can the expensive investment be explained just as a necessary cost/sacrifice for a project to act as social glue between communities or tribes?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      It’s difficult to say. However, given the environmental variability of Europe at the time anything which helped build cohesion between multiple groups (allowing one to move into another’s territory if their’s froze over) would’ve been a huge boon and would likely justify an extraordinary amount of effort.

      That said, for building cohesion between groups the more mobile items, like the venus figurines, were more important; unless people were regularly visiting each other’s caves

  5. Nuclear Wheelchair says:

    Ever heard of hobo signs? I wonder if prehistoric people used a similar system to share knowledge. You could imagine rock faces everywhere in prehistoric times were graffitied with signs like this.

    1. Nuclear Wheelchair says:

      Hey, why didn’t you post up the Dick Butt Man Deer?

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  10. andre salzmann says:

    I think that if you wanted to obtain better insight into the motivations for the European rock art, it would be rewarding to take careful note of studies done on the San/Bushman art of Southern Africa. On the arrival of whites here early 1600’s, these people still lived as hunter gatherers. They lived like this until virtually yesterday. And were rather well studied and documented. They originally inhabited the whole of Southern Africa, seemingly for hundreds of thousands of years, and left rock art as proof, all over this landscape. Only about a 1000 years ago did the black tribes start moving into the area and pushed them into the western arid areas. Then came the whites who pushed them north.
    So it happened that their art and culture was well documented. Far as i know, there are archeologists specializing in this field today. Evan most beautiful story books, by authors who lived amongst them from time to time, the likes of P. J. Schoeman, was written about them. There are quite serious claims (today) that they could sense animals, which were completely out of visual range, up to 12 kms away, when
    What does seem apparent is that in their religion and culture, animals and the animal world, were totally integrated. To one group the Praying Mantis.
    a local insect, was their God or represented their god on earth. Every time an animal was killed, they prayed for its “soul”. Of course they lived in total symbiosis with nature. They illustrated total respect for it
    in their culture/s. Of course they never harmed the environment at all,
    seemingly because of their culture. As apposed to the blacks and whites who moved in recently.
    For modern humans, to place themselves in the mindset of the Australopithecus artistic, must be almost impossible. Unless we can go via the minds of these peoples who lived in almost similar manner, until yesterday? And are being robed of their last natural vestiges as i am typing here.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Hunter-gatherers are certainly a key source of information on the past and have been studied to investigate it. The Shamanism hypothesis discussed above, for example, was partly inspired by the discovery that some modern hunter-gatherers create cave art whilst in an altered state of conciousness.

      However, much of what you say is just a romanticised view of them. They’re a piece of evidence yes, but won’t resolve the issue single-handedly.

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  13. Josie says:

    Those hand stencils are not from Chauvet. They’re Cueva de las Manos in Argentina.

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  18. Bob says:

    i think that now we know why they drew it……to show their pride of their kill during hunting.

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  21. HermesHArt says:

    As an artist Painter i will be always proud to make art, one of the first impulse by humans in the planet Earth…. Painting Art.

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  24. Cleo Ellis says:

    We are born needing to be creative. It is just a matter of allowing it to be free and flourish. All children, starting in infancy, love music, color…and all children draw…until someone tells them they cannot. It is proven, the more creative children are allowed to be, the harder their brain works, developing strong cognitive skills. Anyway…it probably helped them develop speech, fairly difficult to critisize one another’s work with just loud grunts.

  25. Cleo Ellis says:

    Yes, I know I made a typo with the word criticize, Hey! just how do you get to the edit button. 🙂

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  30. Rico Appew says:

    Why is prehistoric men artworks discard after hunting .

    1. Adam Benton says:

      We don’t know they actually did always do that.

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  33. ephraim nana buadi says:

    wanted to know why the prehistoric ma discarded their work of art

  34. Vincent Jenkins says:

    I’ve only just come across this website, and find it refreshingly sensible.

    Well… I was finding it so until I read some of the comments on this particular thread.

    So I want to say in their defence that Binford, Clarke, Schiffer and Hodder have all tried in various ways to point out to archaeologists (and anyone who will listen) that what comes to your mind when you see something in the ground and that you take to be an old object (=artifact) may not be the same as what came into the mind of its manufacturer, user, or the person who discarded it when it was in their possession.

    I strongly support the idea that drawings would have been made in prehistoric times for a variety of motives.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I find this comment refreshingly sensible

  35. Jeff says:

    Did they have weed

    1. Adam Benton says:

      No, mind altering substances appear to have been missing from these locations

  36. Anonymous says:

    thank you, i knew was cause they was high

  37. Dwarf Elder says:

    These cave paintings were the first picture books which holy men used as visual aides for telling stories/history and for passing on hunting knowledge to the clan/tribe. Caves were not fully inhabited year-round and were used more as a storehouse, fortress, temple and winter retreat. Religious temples the world-over still have murals on the walls/ceilings as well as stories to go with the paintings. Ice age winters spent in caves, provided free time for crafting, story telling, tech and art. Summers were wisely spent stocking up for winter which required civic planning and organization. Cave dwellers were creating the fundamentals for civilization while the rest of humanity was living hand to mouth.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      You are correct in that these caves were only inhabited for part of the year. However, beyond that I think you might be reading a bit too much into it.

      1. Gianna Paul says:

        This so helpful. I love this thank you! 🙂

  38. Gianna Paul says:

    Loved this but there are some grammatical errors.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I’m not surprised. I suck at English.

  39. eve says:

    Two local guys/ girls sitting by a fire in a cave, 45,000 years ago making crafting beads and carving rock art. ‘Hey that charcoal makes great lines on my stone. I’ve done some pictures of birds outside. Every time it rains though, the pictures wash off’…..’ Then why don’t you paint in here?’ ….’ Good one. I never thought of that. But what if the children start defacing them or our cave gets taken over?’……’well let’s go into the back of the cave. We can work in peace and just have private viewings.’……’ Do you think my kids will be good painters like me?’…..’.I’m not sure…it’s a nature or nurture thing. My dad was great at hunting. I cant throw a spear straight.’….’you think our paintings might be looked at by future generations?’……’I hope so.just remember to sign it with your palm print. You can charge them more beads to see them then.’

  40. Eve says:

    After the painting has been finished…..’ Whoooo, that’s great. Good idea to use some of the mud on the floor for the horses body.’…… ‘Thanks. Just going back to that nature or nurture thing. I don’t get it.’……’well, I personally think that we are all born painters, like you, and hunters, stone workers, etc. It’s inside us. But some are better than others. That’s the Nature bit. The Nuture bit comes at practicing that skill. As you know, I’m rubbish with a spear, to the frustration of my father.’……’But if all those things are inside us already, why hasn’t anyone else done any painting before. We’ve not found any old cave paintings at all.’…..’yes that has perplexed my thoughts.Maybe the people before didn’t think about it. Maybe the thought didn’t have the time to rise to the surface. Maybe they did, but just painted outside like you did. Oh and one last thing, don’t you think you have gone over the top with your signature. Just one hand would do.’

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