Ancient Humans of Glaciated Western China Consumed High-Potency Cannabis

Evidence of marijuana use is scattered throughout the archaeological record of human civilization. Residue from most of those excavation sites indicates that the cannabis used by ancient humans was of too low potency to make any determination about its cultivation. This finding has led archaeologists to conclude that the plants were likely wild varieties rather than ones domesticated by humans.

A recent find at a cemetery in the glacier-rich Pamirs of western China, however, indicates that humans may have intentionally selected higher potency strains of marijuana as early as 500 BC.

The research team, which included archaeologists and chemists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, published their findings in the June 12 issue of the journal Science Advances.

A wood brazier unearthed at Jirzankal, which was buried within the tomb, containing cannabis residue (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Mark Merlin is a botany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was a reviewer of the study. “We’ve known that cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, primarily for making oil and hemp,” Merlin told NPR. “Now we know the ancients also valued the plant for its psychoactive properties.

The 2,500-year-old Jirzankal Cemetery lies at nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), in present day Xinjiang Uyghyr Autonomous Region, a large province in northwest China. Excavated tombs revealed mummies buried with wood containers, called braziers, used for containing hot coals. Researchers found that the braziers contained cannabis residue.

“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind.”

Ren, et al

The discovery at Jirzankal is significant because of the strength of the psychoactive component of the cannabis residue, which suggests the plants were either cultivated varieties of high potency, or wild varieties which were intentionally selected for this quality.

The research further underscores the role that glaciers may have played in sustaining the marijuana plants, which have a need for high hydration.  A 2015 study on cannabis cultivated in northern California found that an estimated 22 liters of water or more per plant per day were applied during the summer growing season, similar to the water demand of the notoriously thirsty almond tree in the same region.

A wealth of glaciated peaks lie above Jirzankal Cemetery that would have provided melt water for irrigation during the dry season. “Wild cannabis grows across many of the cooler mountain foothills from the Caucasus to western China, especially in the well-watered habitats of Central Asia,” Meng Ren and the co-authors wrote.

Glaciated peaks are visible in the background of the Jirzankal cemetery, whose surface is striped with black and white stones, which mark the tombs’ surfaces. (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Robert Spengler, who worked on the study, is an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, whose work focuses on the spread and intensification of agriculture in ancient Central Asia.

“Further north in Xinjiang, in the Taklamakan Desert, there are other, roughly contemporaneous, finds of cannabis in burials and those populations were clearly living in desert oases that were fed by glacial melt and mountain rain-fed streams that emptied into a hyper-arid desert,” Spengler told GlacierHub. “All of those early populations in Xinjinag were agropastoral and would have relied on glacial melt from the Tian Shan.”

The findings at Jirzankal provoke the imagination to consider the possible role of cannabis in ancient society. “We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the authors wrote.

Today’s inhabitants of the Pamir mountains are known as Tajiks, one of China’s recognized minorities, who number just over 33,000. They speak Sarikoli, a language in a different branch of the Iranian language family from Tajik spoken in Tajikistan. Tajiks different from the much larger Uygur ethnic community, whom also inhabit Xinjiang.

While the humans of 500 BC embraced marijuana for its psychoactive properties, modern governments have eschewed it, until recently.

A groundswell of popularity and diminishing fear of marijuana has societies around the world slowly welcoming use of the plant back into the mainstream. Barriers to legal access are falling across the United States, and several countries have fully legalized it, including Canada and Uruguay.

Even the Chinese government responded to the shifting views of cannabis, making exemptions on strict laws against marijuana that have been in place since 1985. On May 9, The New York Times ran an article titled “China Cashes in On The Cannabis Boom.” The country produced half of the world’s hemp last year, The Economist reported, though Xinjiang, where the Jirzankal cemetery is located, is not one of the two provinces with special permission to produce the plant.

“Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally, but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use, medicinally, ritually and recreationally over countless millennia,” Spengler told The New York Times.

And the glacier-marijuana connection is being embraced by American cannabis brands.

The firm Glacier Cannabis is named after Glacier Farms, whose rolling hills in southeastern Michigan were formed by glaciers during the last glacial maximum. “All Glacier cannabis is grown with locally-sourced glacial rock dust,” reads the Michigan company’s brand strategy page.

The Glacier Cannabis logo (Source: Brittany Barnhart/Just Curious).

In the heavily-glaciated Pacific Northwest, a cannabis varietal named “Glacier OG” is bred by RedEyed Genetics, a cannabis seed distributor. Marijuana is also legal in Alaska, the US state with the most glaciers. The rapidly melting glaciers there have contributed more to sea level rise than any glacier region in the world since 1961. A marijuana manufacturer, Glacier Extracts, is based in Anchorage. The operation’s tagline “Not Just Pure: Glacier Pure,” capitalizes on the untainted quality of glaciers.

Humans may have sensed a connection between glaciers and cannabis in 500 BC — or they may have noted the plant’s growth at altitude yielded higher potency buds. “It is possible,” the study authors speculate, “that high-elevation populations of a naturally higher THC–producing variety were recognized and targeted by people in the Pamir region, possibly even explaining the prominence of ritual sites in the high mountains.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

What the Newest Global Glacier-Volume Estimate Means for High Mountain Asia

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Roundup: Disappearing Acts, Sound Signatures, and Cryoconite Holes

China’s Disappearing Glaciers

From Chinese Academy of Sciences: “Xinjiang, a land of mountains, forests and deserts, is four times the size of California and is home to 20,000 glaciers — nearly half of all the glaciers in China. Since the 1950s, all of Xinjiang’s glaciers have retreated by between 21 percent to 27 percent.”

Read more about glacial retreat in China here.

The Tianshan No. 1 glacier is rapidly melting—scientific estimates report that the glacier could completely disappear within the next 50 years (Source: Rob Schmitz/NPR).

 

Glaciers Have Signature Sounds

From Sonic Skills: “In early 2015, an international group of geophysicists published an article claiming that particular patterns in the sounds of glaciers might reveal where and how those glaciers were calving. They had made sound recordings with hydrophones—underwater microphones—and taken photos at the same time. This enabled them to link various glacier sounds to distinct forms of ablation through ‘acoustic signatures.’”

Read more about glaciers’ signature acoustics here.

An aerial shot of a tidewater glacier. Sound-recording instruments are used especially for studying movement of tidewater glaciers (Source: Jon Nickles/PIXNIO).

 

Cryoconite Holes on the Qaanaaq Glacier

From Annals of Glaciology: “Cryoconite holes are water-filled cylindrical holes formed on ablation ice surfaces and commonly observed on glaciers worldwide.. Results suggest that the dimensions of holes drastically changed depending on the weather conditions and that frequent cloudy, warm and windy conditions would cause a decay of holes and weathering crust, inducing an increase in the cryoconite coverage on the ice, consequently darkening the glacier surface.”

Read more about cryoconite holes and glacial darkening here.

Aerial photo of meltwater streams in Greenland. Dark spots on the surface of the glacier are the result of cryoconite (Source: Marco Tedesco (NASA)/Flickr).

 

 

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Roundup: Iceland Eruption, Black Flies and Black Carbon

Insights into Bárðarbunga Volcano from the Holuhraun Rifting Event

From Advancing Earth and Space Science: “The two weeklong rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcano in 2014 led to the Holuhraun eruption, which produced 1.5 km3 of lava and was the largest in Iceland in over 200 years. Predicting when and where an intrusion will lead to eruption requires detailed knowledge of the underlying stress field… Modeling of the 2014 Bárðarbunga rifting event therefore not only yields insights into the event but also provides a window into undetected volcanic activity in the past.”

Find out more about the geology behind one of the biggest eruptions on a glacier-covered volcano here.

Holuhraun eruption
Holuhraun eruption (Source: Iceland/Pinterest).

 

Distribution of Black Flies in the Andes During El Niño

From ScienceDirect: “Vector ecology is a key factor in understanding the transmission of disease agents, with each species having an optimal range of environmental requirements. Scarce data, however, are available for how interactions of local and broad-scale climate phenomena, such as seasonality and the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), affect simuliids (Black Flies). We, therefore, conducted an exploratory study to examine distribution patterns of species of Simuliidae along an elevational gradient of the Otún River in the Colombian Andes, encompassing four ecoregions. Species richness and occurrence in each ecoregion were influenced by elevation, seasonality, and primarily the warm El Niño and cool La Niña phases of the ENSO. The degree of change differed among ecoregions and was related to physicochemical factors, mainly with stream discharge.”

Read more about the distribution of black flies based on the climatology of the Andes Mountains here.

Black Fly
Simuliids/Black Flies (Source: Kallerna/M.I.I.A).

 

Glacier Retreat of the Tian Shan and Impact on Urban Growth

From IOP Earth and Environmental Science: “The retreat of mountain glaciers, notably in high Asia, provides evidence for the rise of global temperature. Analyses of satellite remote sensing data combined with the ground observations reveal a 37.5% decline of glaciered area from 1989 to 2014 in No.1 Glacier, the headwaters of the Urumqi River basin, Chinese Tian Shan, which could be linked to increased summer melting. We suggest that the decline of glacier area is driven primarily by summer melting and, possibly, linked to the combined effects of the global rise in temperatures and black carbon/CO2 emission from coal-fired power plants, cement plants and petroleum chemical plants from the nearby Urumqi regions.”

Discover more about the glacier melting in Tian Shan Mountains and its impacts here.

Number One Glacier in the mountains outside Urumqi, Xinjiang, China (Source: Remko Tanis/Flickr).

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Photo Friday: Marc Foggin & the Mountains of Central Asia

This Photo Friday, journey to the mountains of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau through breathtaking photographs from Marc Foggin, acting director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A conservation biologist specializing in the mountain environments of Asia, Foggin has over twenty years of experience traversing the glacierized landscapes of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau. His research primarily explores the complex human dimensions of conservation, natural resource management and community development.

His photography extends beyond the region too, capturing his adventures across the world from Nepal to Kenya to Norway to Hawaii and beyond. This week’s post showcases a few of Foggin’s landscape photographs from the Hindu-Kush, Tianshan mountains, and the Tibetan Plateau.

Check out more of Marc Foggin’s photography from across the world here.

Image of the Hindu Kush Mountain in Afghanistan from the Panj river on the Tajikistan side of the border (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

Image of the Panj River with the Hindu-Kush mountains in the background. The Panj River defines the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

Image of an early morning on the Tibetan plateau at 4,800 meters above sea level. In a region known as the Sanjiangyuan, this area of grasslands and wetlands are the source areas of the powerful Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong rivers (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

Image of the Tianshan Mountains from the eastern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, just south of the town of Karakol in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Marc Foggin).

 

 

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Increased Discharge in the Tianshan Glacierized Watersheds

Western Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang, China, overlooking the glacier-fed Sayram Lake (Source: Jaymar Alvaran/Creative Commons).

In the arid and semi-arid regions of Central Asia, including western China, the glaciers of the Tianshan Mountains are an important water source for the inhabitants of the area. But accelerated glacier retreat is an unfortunate product of the changing climate, and the Tianshan glaciers are no exception. A recent study published in Hydrological Processes by Chinese scientists Min Xu, Hao Wu and Shichang Kang explored how the glacierized watersheds of the Tianshan Mountains have changed over almost 60 years.

Home to some 8,000 glaciers and spanning across approximately 7,200 square kilometers, the Tianshan Mountains are among the largest mountain systems in the area as well as a “water tower” of Central Asia. According to the study, the snow and glaciers yield 40 to 70 percent of the total river discharge of the region, feeding the water that supplies approximately 50 million people in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, northern Tajikistan, and the Xinjiang province of western China. The researchers used non-parametric tests and wavelet transforms to assess the changes of temperature, precipitation, discharge, glacier volume and runoff of six various watersheds of the Tianshan from 1957 to 2004, ultimately examining how different rivers have responded to climate change.

The study concluded that the glacierized region of the Tianshan Mountains has undergone significant change in the past several decades and that “regional climate warming was obvious.” Additionally, they found patterns in the results. For temperature, “the warming trend increased gradually from east to west, and the increase in temperature was greater on the north slope than on the south slope,” according to the paper. The results mentioned similar patterns for precipitation. From the eastern to central region, the trend increased but was followed by a trend decrease from central to western. However, despite the decline, the value in the west was still higher than in the east. As for the discharge, it also generally increased from east to west. Lead scientist Min Xu explained to GlacierHub that the main reasons for the differences in trends across the regions are the variations in precipitation and glacier area, which are generally larger in the west. This pattern reflects the predominant atmospheric circulation, which comes from the west; the moisture-bearing winds deposit the largest amount of precipitation on the first mountains which they encounter.

Image of the Tianshan Mountains (Source: travelingmipo/Creative Commons).

One of the significant concerns regarding the increase in glacier discharge is how the waters supported by Tianshan Glacier meltwater stand concerning the peak water value—as glacier retreat advances, rivers first carry more water, reflecting the more rapid melting, but then later have lower flow, because the glaciers are depleted.

Although this study does not address the concept of peak water directly, it does report on three highly relevant points. First, there is an overall upward trend across the six discharge locations. These results thus indicate that the calculated trends are currently pre-peak value. Second, the patterns do vary from river to river depending on the geography. For instance, where the exact position is in the mountains. Additionally, where on the individual mountains, whether the north or south slope or high or low elevation. These differences demonstrate the variability in predicting peak value. And third, not all glaciers are melting at similar rates and react to climate dynamics differently. Many higher glaciers have remained relatively stable regarding discharge variability. But scientists do expect even the upper glacier watersheds to exhibit more substantial fluctuations as glaciers will shrink under a warming climate.

Such a phenomenon will have broad ramifications across the region. “Changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of water resources due to climate change will lead to unbalanced developments in the productivity of the region, which would aggravate discrepancies of the economy,” glaciologist Shiqiang Zhang of Northwest University in China told GlacierHub. “It is very important to evaluate the fluctuations of glaciers and water resource changes on the watershed scale under the changes in climate, which not only provides references for assessing the changes of water resources in future, but also provide important suggestions for water management in Central Asia.”

Image of a glacier-fed river feeding into Ala-Kul Lake deep inside the Tianshan (Source: Journeys On Quest/Creative Commons).

Hongkai Gao, postdoctoral research associate at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, shared his remarks on the importance of the study. “It is essential to study runoff changes of glacier-fed watersheds in different climatic regions of the Tianshan Mountains,” Gao told GlacierHub. “This study helps us to gain a better understanding on the recent changes in the Central Asian ice cover with regard to the ongoing climate change and for the assessment of the contribution of the glaciers’ meltwater to the total runoff.”

However, the concerns go beyond Central Asia. “The hydrological implications of climate change are a global concern,” Xu told GlacierHub. Melting glaciers across the world face changes in discharge and face peak water value. Once this peak water value has passed, “water resources are expected to diminish in glacier-fed watersheds, and significant economic and societal impacts are expected in peripheral regions,” Xu elaborated. “Therefore, we evaluate the fluctuations of glaciers and water resource changes on the watershed scale under the past climate change. This work will help us to understand the changes of runoff in future climate change and provide the references for adopting policies for water resource management.”

Adopting sustainable water resource policies now could partially offset the potential threat towards local peoples’ livelihoods and well-being to occur in the decades to come as a result of melting glaciers. Researching and understanding the trends, as these scientists did for the Tianshan, is the crucial first step to making effective policies.

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Glacial Change in China’s Central Asia

A grassland flanked by China’s Central Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Though I lived in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for almost two years, it was only when I was in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains, my motorcycle meandering its way around fallen rock, sheep herds and horses, that I felt truly at home. Just a few hours outside of the city of Shihezi, inspiring peaks soared over 4000 meters. Though I had no scientific data to support my feeling that these stunning vistas were impermanent, over the course of my stay there were fewer and fewer clear days to see the cresting glacier-capped peaks from my apartment window. The haze even began to influence my weekend trips deep into the mountains, sometimes choking off the views far outside of the city. There is too much pollution in these mountains, not like when I was a child— a common refrain that echoed among many Kazakh and Mongol herders who made their home there.

Kazakh Chinese men bring their Golden Eagle home (Source: William Julian).

In a recent article in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Baojuan Huai and a team of Chinese researchers use remote sensing to put scientific data in the place of the herders’ and my own perceptions. The glaciers of the Tian Shan— the impressive mountain range that historically has divided the region’s agrarian oasis-states to the south and nomadic communities to the north— are in danger of disappearing. The authors demonstrate that in the Chinese Tian Shan, the total area of the glaciers studied has decreased by 22 percent over a fifty year period. The data also shows that glacier retreat is a variable within different regions of the Tian Shan— the result of a convergence of factors both human-caused and natural.

The picturesque Narat Grassland (Source: William Julian).

China is home to a baffling 46,377 glaciers. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region contains 18,311 of them. The Tian Shan, which cuts across Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, boasts the largest number of glaciers in northwest China. These glaciers provide invaluable solid reservoirs to agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry in the region. When considering the Tian Shan range alone, the glacial loss will continue to have a severe impact on the livelihoods and ecology of Xinjiang, according to Weijun Sun, one of the paper’s authors. “Warming temperatures are causing a real reduction to glaciers across China, and ablation is occurring constantly, negatively impacting regional ecology,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

To acquire data for so many glaciers, the team utilized remote sensing technology, which relies on satellites to monitor different sites, using automated glacier mapping technology to distinguish glaciers from other features. Remote sensing alleviates many of the difficulties typically faced in conducting research on glaciers, which are often remote and difficult to access, according to Sun. “Remote sensing is a fantastic tool, expanding the scope of what we are capable of measuring. With this technology we can now measure things like the amount of reflectance coming from under the surface, or the temperature at the base,” he stated.

Inside a yurt, an elderly Kazakh woman rolls a cigarette (Source: William Julian).

For the study, the team selected glaciers that covered a range of variables: glaciers large and small, debris-covered and debris-free, and at high and low elevations were all represented. The research shows that over the period studied, 182 Tian Shan glaciers disappeared, and several large glaciers divided into multiple small glaciers. The percentage of area reduction tended to be higher in small glaciers than in large glaciers, with small glaciers more likely to shrink significantly or disappear entirely.

Glaciers across the Tian Shan experienced a real loss over the period studied, but the rate of change between regions within the mountain range showed significant variability. While glacier loss in one region was as low as 12 percent, total glacier area loss reached 42 percent in another. This variability is caused by a constellation of factors, according to Sun. “Regional variation is primarily caused by differing historical climatic factors, such as temperature, precipitation, and radiation,” he said.

A snack in the foothills of the Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Over the period under consideration, the annual temperature increase in Xinjiang was 0.29 degree Celsius per decade, almost double the global average. Additionally, annual precipitation increased at a rate of 10.6mm per decade, which increased the sensitivity of glaciers at lower elevations to rising temperatures. However, the extent of these increases were not constant throughout the region.

When considering the causes of intensified areal loss in certain parts of the Tian Shan, looking at the specific topography of individual glaciers is critical, according to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “The glaciers in Central Tian Shan receive more accumulation during the summer while glaciers in the outer rages receive more accumulation during winter. These summer-accumulation type glaciers are more sensitive to climate change. In addition, the Central Tian Shan is higher than the outer ranges; hence, the glaciers in the Central Tian Shan can have larger accumulation areas,” he stated in an interview with GlacierHub.

The glacier-covered Tian Shan is an increasingly popular tourist destination (Source: William Julian).

In the decades considered in the study, the mean equilibrium line altitude (ELA)— the point on the glacier at which annual ablation and accumulation are equal— increased in altitude. The increases ranged from only 5 meters for one glacier, to as many as 151 meters in another. The increases in mean glacier elevation indicate that glaciers are unable to survive at the lower elevations they once thrived in. Glaciers have been retreating before the eyes of pastoralists for decades; that Chinese researchers have put data in the place of their inaudible perceptions is cause for celebration, if not another motorcycle trip.

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Roundup: Drone Research, Tianshan Glaciers, and Indigenous Alaskans

Roundup: Drones, Glacier Mass and Vulnerability

 

Drone Research Points to Global Warming

From Pacific Standard: “Aaron Putnam is an hour behind them, hiking with a team of students, research assistants, and local guides. He’s a glacial geologist from the University of Maine, and he and his team are here to collect the surface layer of granite boulders implanted in those moraines that formed at the margins of the glacier…The team hopes that data derived from the rock can tell them when the ice melted. ‘This was the singular most powerful, most important climate event in human history. It allowed us to flourish,’ Putnam says. ‘But we don’t know why that happened.’ Putnam is trying to determine what caused the Ice Age’s demise; the answer could help us identify the triggers that cause abrupt climate change.”

Learn more about how the study of glaciers points to our climate’s future here:

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The research team photographs the landscape near the study’s sampling site (Source: Kevin Stark/Pacific Standard).

 

Central Asia Feels Effects of Global Warming

From Molecular Diversity Preservation International: “Global climate change has had a profound and lasting effect on the environment. The shrinkage of glacier ice caused by global warming has attracted a large amount of research interest, from the global scale to specific glaciers. Apart from polar ice, most research is focused on glaciers on the third pole—the Asian high mountains. Called the Asian water tower, the Asian high mountains feed several major rivers by widespread glacier melt. Changing glacier mass there will have a far-reaching influence on the water supply of billions of people. Therefore, a good understanding of the glacier mass balance is important for planning and environmental adaptation.”

Learn more about glacier mass balance and associated environmental adaption here:

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An aerial photo depicting a sector of the Tianshan mountains (Source: Chen Zhao/Flickr).

 

Perspectives from Indigenous Subarctic Alaskans

From Ecology and Society: “Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities currently are facing a myriad of social and environmental changes. In response to these changes, studies concerning indigenous knowledge (IK) and climate change vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptation have increased dramatically in recent years. Risks to lives and livelihoods are often the focus of adaptation research; however, the cultural dimensions of climate change are equally important because cultural dimensions inform perceptions of risk. Furthermore, many Arctic and Subarctic IK climate change studies document observations of change and knowledge of the elders and older generations in a community, but few include the perspectives of the younger population.”

Learn more about the younger generation’s perception of climate change and its impacts here:

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An Indigenous Iñupiat Alaskan family (Source: Edward S. Curtis/Wikimedia Commons).

 

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