The Toba Super Eruption: A Non-Flood Catastrophe – The Artifacts Say Yes!

An ash plume rising from Eyjafjallajökull on April 2010. Ash from this volcano grounded air-traffic in Europe for days and weeks in 2010. This was a small explosion compared to Krakatoa, Pinatubo, and Mt St Helens, and yet even those were tiny eruption compared to super-eruptions in places like Yellowstone and Sumatra. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Sudden catastrophic events are not unknown in earth’s history.  Large craters are evidence of past cosmic impacts and widespread layers of volcanic ash are a testimony to massive volcanic eruptions.  But when did these catastrophes occur and could they have influenced human history?

Standard geological models place the largest catastrophic events far in the past.  So long ago that no human being it thought to have been alive to witness the events or provide us with a written report.

On the other hand, the chronology proposed by literal-day young-earth creationists (YECs) compresses all of earth’s history into approximately 6000 years and places human beings just six days short of being alive at the very fist moment.  Therefore, any catastrophic geological event in history must have occurred within man’s time on this earth.

YECs propose a catastrophic event that is not recognized by the conventional geological model: a global flood that occurred 4500 years ago that is said to have restructured the entire face of the earth.  But what about other catastrophes that conventional geologists do recognize?  There are large craters and massive ash layers that attest to cosmic impacts and volcanic eruptions.  Advocates of YEC flood geology usually don’t dispute that such impacts and eruptions have occurred but they disagree about when they occurred.  They propose that most of these events occurred concurrently or just following the global flood.  Hence, even when they recognize asteroid impacts or super-eruptions of volcanoes they frequently locate them within a short time-span about 4500 years ago.

Is the compression of all volcanic and extraterrestrial impact activity within a few thousand years a reasonable hypothesis?  Certainly not!  The YEC hypothesis fails to account for much of the observed evidence that these catastrophic events have left on the face of the Earth including evidence that many of these events have been separated by thousands or hundreds of thousands of years.

Today, I want to draw your attention to just one example of a failure of the young-earth hypothesis to provide an explanatory framework for the observations we make of the world around us.  That example is possibly the largest volcanic eruptions in earth’s history: the Toba super-eruption.

Unlike other global catastrophes that conventional geologists have concluded happened long before man could have been a witness, this massive catastrophe occurred within the time that most scientists believe people have lived on earth.  When this super-eruption occurred and how it affected people alive at that time raise questions about human history that Christians, and YECs in particular, must consider as they seek to develop a biblical understanding of the history of humanity.

The Toba Volcano super-eruption – possibly the largest volcanic explosion in Earth’s young or old history 

The May 2012 issue of Quaternary International (see references) is devoted to exploring the history and implications of the Toba volcano super-eruption.  The Toba volcano is located near the center of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.   It doesn’t look like a volcano today because when it last erupted it completely blew its top off and then collapsed into what is called a caldera.  That depression has since filled with water to form a huge (100km x 30km) lake around which people have lived for thousands of years.

A minimum of 2800 cubic kilometers of material was thrown into the air during its most recent explosion or series of explosions.  To put that in perspective, in 1883 the Krakatoa volcano threw about 20 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere some of which circled the globe causing dazzling sunsets in Europe (see footnote 1 for a description).  More recently, Mt. St. Helens in North America released about 1 cubic kilometer of material into the atmosphere.  Therefore, the Toba eruption released at least 2800 times as much material as Mt. St. Helens.  The Toba super-eruption may have been the single largest volcanic explosion in earth’s history.-

Lake Toba which is found today in the collapsed caldera crater of Toba volcano in Sumatra. The mountains in the distance form the rim of this huge crater. This lake is 100km long and 30km wide and was formed after an estimated 2800 cubit kilometers of ash was thrown into the atmosphere. For comparison, Mt. St Helens in Washington State only spewed 1 cubit kilometer of ash.

The extent of this eruption is difficult to comprehend and can hardly be overstated!  It was massive but how do we know how massive?  The size of this explosion is estimated partly from the vast crater it left where the volcanic peak previously stood (see the picture above of the lake that now resides in what is left of the volcano).  But we are also able to measure the volcanic ash, called tuff, it left over all of southeast Asia and even most of the Indian subcontinent.  Some ash layers closest to the volcano are over 1000 feet thick!  Ash layers, several inches thick, from this eruption can be found as far as 2000 miles from the volcano.  A thick layer of ash several inches to a foot thick is found in sediment cores pulled from the floor of the Indian and South China Sea.   Physical evidence of this volcanic eruption is even recorded in the Greenland Ice cores (The Toba Super-Eruption and Polar Ice Cores). All of these ash layers can readily be assigned to the Toba volcano based on unique chemical signatures.

Comparison of material emitted for a number of famous volcanic eruptions. All the ones that emitted 100 cubic kilometers or more and considered super-eruptions. Toba has erupted more than once but the one shown is the youngest. Image credit: USGS – http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/images/pglossary/eruptionsize.php

This eruption of the Toba Volcano was massive but it wasn’t the only one.  Ash layers in the geological record reveal a record of multiple explosions separated by tens of thousands of years. This succession of volcanic eruptions is a significant problem for YEC chronology but we will only focus on the most recent and largest of these explosive events.

Many studies—see references below—of the most recent Toba super-eruption tuffs called the YTT (Youngest Toba Tuff) suggest, not surprisingly, that this event affected the climate of the the whole earth and northern hemisphere in particular by blocking sunlight resulting in lower temperatures and altered weather patterns.  As a result even regions that escaped the effects of falling volcanic ash suffered some environmental impacts.

Where the ash did fall, it dramatically effected the vegetation for a long time.  We know this because detailed studies of pollen and plant parts found in sediments below and above the ash layers in India and Indonesia and sediment cores from the Indian Ocean.  These studies reveal that pollen found below the ash layer, in the ash layers itself and above the ash layer represent the pollen that was falling into the ocean before during and after the eruption.  Collectively, these pollen profiles tell us that there were widespread tropical forests and dense deciduous forests with little grass in most of India prior to this volcanic eruption.  However, the sediments above the ash layers tell a different story. They record dryer conditions with grasslands contributing a much greater portion of the fossils in the sediments.

A cross section of the ash layer found in a valley in India.  the white layer at the bottom is the original air born ash fall layer. the whitish layers above represent ash that was eroded from higher elevations and deposited in the valley location.  Above that are multiple layers of ancient soil horizons.  This site is more than 1000 miles from the origin point of the ash!!  Image credit: http://www.foxnews.com/images/299448/0_22_070709_toba_deposit.jpg

When did the Toba Super-Eruption Happen?

You might be thinking, wow, very interesting, but why haven’t I heard of such a dramatic event in Earth’s history? Why didn’t people living in the area record this dramatic event. Why don’t we have reports of colorful sunsets and sunrises in Europe like we did when Krakatoa blew its top?

That may be because multiple dating techniques tell us that this catastrophe happened about 75,000 years ago.  This date corresponds well with global climate changes recorded in the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores.  Scientists investigating this event still debate whether this volcanic eruption had a long-term (ie. thousands of years) effects on global climate but nonetheless, the eruption certainly had large immediate impacts over all of Southeast Asia and would have been noticed over the whole northern hemisphere.

A 75,000 year-old event doesn’t fit within a 6000 year chronology.   How might YECs accommodate this volcanic explosion in their view of earth’s history?

YECs will quibble with the radiometric derived dates but these are well established by multiple methods.   However, for the sake of argument, let us set aside those dates and suppose we can’t put a specific date on these events.  This would not eliminate the challenge that this volcano’s eruption creates for the young-earth view of earth’s history.

Why? First, it is evident that ash layers from this eruption found on land and in sea sediments are not very young because the are often found under tens to hundreds of feet under other sediments in many places in Asia and under 10 to 50 feet of sediments in sea floor sediment cores.  You might be thinking, but don’t YECs believe that most of these sediments were the product of post-flood events like an Ice Age or run-off from the last vestiges of the end of a global flood? Yes, but this particular ash layer can’t have formed before a so-called biblical Ice Age or during a catastrophic eruption at the culmination of a global flood!

The Toba super-eruption is one of the most significant geological events that has yet to be adequately addressed by young earth creationists as they attempt to produce an alternative chronology of the history of the earth and humanity.

Why? Because we have smoking-gun evidence that these ash layers were deposited much later than these YEC events will allow.

So just what is this smoking gun evidence that every model of earth and human history must address?  Human artifacts are found below and above the ash that fell from this volcanic eruption.

Mapping of stone tool artifacts on a Middle Palaeolithic occupation surface under the Toba ash in India. On the lower level of this site, stone tools have been found that were definitely created by human beings.  (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford)

Toba Super-Eruption and Human Migration

The YTT (youngest Toba tuff) ash layer is particular relevant to any discussion of human origins and their spread over the earth which is why this ash layer has been studied by anthropologists so intensively the last decade.

Why? because in a valley in southern India (see picture to right) where this ash layer has been preserved exceptionally well, more than 200 stone tools have been found in sediments just below the ash layer.  Furthermore, 500 miles to the north there is another site where this same ash layer occurs and there is evidence of human occupation below that ash as well.

The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the presence of these stone tools is that people were living in India when the Toba volcano blew its top.   For many years anthropologist have hotly debated who these people were that left these stone tools at this location and whether they were all killed by the volcano and had to repopulate southeast Asia from Africa/Middle East again or if some may have survived in small numbers to repopulate the region.  However, this debate is not as important to us as the observation that tools are found above and below this catastrophic event boundary.

Implications for Young Earth Creationism
This massive and apparently world-altering volcanic explosion cannot be explained within a young-age chronology as an event that occurred concurrently or at the end of a global flood.   Here we have an example of a volcano that must have obliterated nearly all life on Sumatra and likely deforested most of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.  Massive deposits  from air-borne ash would have killed many of the animals in this entire region.

Again, YECs can’t explain this as happening while Noah and his family were safe inside the Ark.  The evidence that humans occupied sites just before this massive volcanic eruption necessitates that this volcano had to have blown its top after people had migrated from the Ark to India.  In the YEC chronology this would place this catastrophic even no more than 4000 years ago!

Why only 4000 year ago?  Because most creationists believe that the Flood occurred 4350 years ago and then after the Flood the descendants of Noah lived in Middle East were they then all gathered together at Babel several hundred years after the Flood.  The first people to reach India would have been descendants of the people at Babel.  Therefore, these stone tools could not have been dropped at this location in India until after people had dispersed there from Babel.  This sets the minimum age of this catastrophe at no more than 4000 years ago in the YEC chronology.  This volcano could not have destroyed Sumatra until well after the dispersal of peoples from Babel.

How have YECs responded to the evidence of this catastrophe and how have they accommodated in their timeline?

They haven’t. They have ignored what may have been the largest single volcanic explosion in history.  I have found only one reference in the YEC literature that does anything but mention the Toba super-eruption in passing such as in comparisons with the size of this volcanic explosion with respect to others like Mt. St. Helens.

One article (see references) by Brian Thomas at ICR mentions Toba in the context of speculating about human technological capacities in the past, referenced the presence of artifacts below the Toba ash layers as evidence that the creators of these artifacts were surely fully human and not some other hominid species.  His interest was to discount the existence of pre-Adamites.

Thomas seemed to be completely oblivious to the challenges that the very presence of the artifacts present to the creationist time-line irrespective of the spiritual status of the artifacts creators.  Ironically, by insisting that these tools were created by humans he removes the only possible hope of explaining this ash layer away—that the “tools” are just accidental products of rocks bumping into each other or where made by non-human apes.

There is so much more that could be said about this volcano and how it effected the landscape and climate of the world but I don’t want to distract anyone from the most important conclusion:  With regards to a young earth paradigm, the evidence of a super-eruption and the artifacts that it preserved leaves no reasonable doubt  that people with stone-age technology had already migrated far out of the Middle East and Africa and were impacted by a massive catastrophe that could not have been associated with a global flood event.   So, when did these people live?  How did they get there?  How could this ash be covered by many dozens to hundreds of feet of sediments including many other “ancient” sites of human occupation that predate any written record?  Why did the people who lived here only have very crude rock flaking technology if they had just dispersed—probably in less than one lifetime—from building a sophisticated tower of Babel? How could this massive eruption not have been noticed by people all over the world and been recorded by anyone in any form of written historical record? When it comes to human origins, I simply see no answers to these questions for anyone who wishes to compress these events into a young-earth chronology.

Young-earth creationists continue to ignore the Toba super-eruption

I first wrote about this catastrophic historical event and the challenge it presents to the young-earth paradigm in 2012.   The response?  Silence.  YEC authors need to feel they need to respond to me but the should surely be interested in incorporating such well-known events into their flood geology model of the history of the earth.   Simply ignoring evidence won’t make their models stronger?  The artifacts found underneath the Toba ash can’t be ignored forever.  Ken Ham and others wonder why their followers become disillusioned with young earth creationism when they learn more about geology and biology. It is because students quickly learn about events such as Toba and they find themselves with a flood geology model that is helpless to provide them with a means of explaining the new things they learn.

References, Sources and Interesting Links
This is a link to the Article index for the May issue of Quaternary International.  If you have access to the articles there is a wealth of information here.
Middle Paleolithic assemblages from the Indian subcontinent before and after the Toba super-eruption.  M Petraglia, R Korisettar, N Boivin, C Clarkson… Science 6 July 2007:  Vol. 317 no. 5834 pp. 114-116
A science direct highlight of research on the human occupation of this region at this time.
Michael D. Petraglia, Ravi Korisettar, J.N. Pal.  The Toba Volcanic Super-eruption of 74,000 Years Ago: Climate Change, Environments, and Evolving Humans.  Quaternary International
,   Volume 258, 1 May 2012, Pages 1–4
http://www.icr.org/article/supervolcanoes-mount-st-helens-eruption/
  – Supervolcanoes and the Mount St. Helens Eruption,  By Steven Austin.  Here Austin presents an argument for supervolcanoes during the flood with gradual reduction of force after the flood to the present.
http://www.icr.org/article/early-advanced-human/
  – Brian Thomas of ICR makes comment on the Toba eruption but doesn’t say when and doesn’t mention the volcano’s power.  He just uses it as an example of humans in India being advanced (advanced apparently means only capable of making stone tools?!).

Comments

  1. ashley haworth-roberts (mr) says:

    I’ve checked at Wikipedia whether there were one or more massive volcanic eruptions recorded (smaller than the Sumatran one) around 4,300 years’ ago when Noah’s Flood is meant to have taken place. The answer is ‘no’; the well-documented Vesuvius eruption seems to have been a century or so too early. (Undersea volcanoes, capable of heating the oceans, should also have left a geological signature I think – even if most humans were dead and saw and felt nothing.)

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    • Hi Ashley, thanks for the comment. I agree there are many other catastrophic events for which we see records and for which there are records of their effects. My post was aimed at those that view all large catastrophes and fossil producing processes as the result of a global flood. The remains of human occupation prior to a really large catastrophic event that undoubtedly also fossilized many organisms just like the Yellowstone eruptions contradicts the usual YEC message that fossils could only have been produced by a global flood. I’m glad you Vesuvius is a good example of actualism in action. We have written documentation of historical eruptions of Vesuvius but what is interesting is there is a record of many many additional eruptions in the geological record around the volcano. Only the top most layers of volcanic ash and pryroclastic flows represent the historical record of the past 4000 years but the layers below tell of many many more discrete yet very similar events. Where is the global flood when the historic record goes right back to 4300 years and the rocks continue beyond that without a dramatic break.

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  2. Whilst you make a very good case this couldn’t have happened during the flood, what about if it happened before it?

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    • Hi Adam, Good question. Going beyond your question a bit let me try a quick summary of the responses from the entire spectrum of creation positions:
      1) Young earth creationists – My post tries to nail this site down for them as post-flood from them. What I didn’t say is that there are 20,000 feet of fossil bearing layers of rock below this site where human occupation is evidenced below the ash layer. I can’t imagine any young earth creationists suggesting that this site existed prior to the flood. They would have to believe that the flood make almost no impact on the surface of the earth and they would not have a means of explaining all the other fossils if the flood did not lay down all that rock below this site.
      2) Young history (6000 years) but old by appearance of age – this very rare (but common in the past) position posits all the rocks as being created as they are with apparent age and even fossils might have been created with apparent age. In this case I suppose this ash layer could have been simply created with apparent age (even the volcano didn’t really erupt just apparently did). However, the remains of human occupation is something that even a staunch apparent age advocate would have trouble getting past. I have not seen any that wan to say that human fossils are the result of creation with appearance of age.
      3) Old earth creationism (Hugh Ross variety) – In this case I there was no global flood and no need for a young earth. So acceptance of the 74,000 year time period is not really a problem but I think that Ross likes to put the origin of modern humans around 24 thousand years various reasons having to do with technology/religion evidenced in the fossil record. But he is willing to go as deep as maybe 60,000 years for modern man. I believe that for Ross these occupation site would represent evidence of other hominid species that were around before modern man. In this case the Toba volcano may have been a providential happening that helped to remove these other hominids laying foundation for his bringing modern spirit-bearing man into existence.
      4) Theistic evolutionists I would think probably don’t have a problem with the dating or the presence of hominids at this location but it does bring up evidence that has to be addressed in the discussion about a singular and historical Adam and Eve and when they lived.

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      • Given the flood is also given as an explanation for fossils by YECs, the quantity of such layers below the find is a clear indication it would be either during or after the flood. Thank you for clearing that up.

        You might want to add that fact to the post though, that singular statement is a pretty effective counter to thinking it is pre-flood.

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      • “Made stone tools” does not automatically make them “people”. Bonobos today have been observed making stone tools. It is not a human characteristic, its an advanced animal characteristic. The pre-toba sites are almost certainly pre-adamic animals. Like Homo Erectus or Neanderthal. (Or chimps for that matter)

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        • I would agree with your first statement. However, Bonobos have some capacity to make stone tools but their stone tool technology is no where near that observed in the tools buried beneath the Toba ash. The latter tools show a great deal of sophistication and require a high degree of learned behavior and planning. Unless we discover far greater capacities in chimps that is currently observed it would be difficult to assign these tools to a chimpanzee.

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      • wowfunny251 says:

        Your comment about hugh ross putting the creation of modern humans after the toba supereruption is not really correct anymore. Recent articles and podcasts on RTB suggest that they have shifted to saying the creatures living at Blombos cave (dated to ~75k BP) are human and post-noah. Fuz has even suggested that the early “homo-sapien” skulls in ethiopia 200k – 150k BP are descendants of adam and eve.

        Personally, I feel that Adam and Eve were most likely created after toba. I view toba as the final major stepping stone before creating humans. Removing archaic sapiens from the picture. But RTB apparently disagrees nowadays. I understand why they do that, but I disagree with their logic.

        Just thought I would fill you in.

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  3. ashley haworth-roberts (mr) says:

    Further to my previous comment, in fact the famous Pompeii eruption of Vesuvius was in 79 AD. But there was a previous eruption around 2420 BC according to Wikipedia (that’s the one around a century before ‘Noah’s Flood’ that I was referring to).

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  4. Noah’s flood occurred in the late Holocene to early Neolithic. The stone tools found in Southern India date to before 74,000 years, but they are not the oldest stone tools. Those were found in central Africa on the shores of a Paleolake and are dated about 100,000 years. Almost identical hand axes have been found by Thomas Strasser and his team on the island of Crete. They found hundreds of these stone hand axes of African origin dating at least 60,000 years.

    Other ancient stone tools have been found on the Iranian plateaus. According to Hamed Nasab Vahdati, a member of the archeological society at Iran’s Cultural Heritage Center, the Stone Age artifacts found in Iran are very similar to those found in East Africa.

    At least three migrations out of Africa have taken place in the past 120,000 years. The first that has been documented took place in the Late Pleistocene (120,000-12,000 B.C.). A second migration happened around 75,000 years ago. This was likely the migration of the Nilotic Ainu, a seafaring people who went al the way to Japan and Finland, and from Finland to NE Canada. The Kushite migration took place between 8,000 and 1000 B.C. This was movement was from the Upper Nile Valley/ Horn of Africa into northern Arabia and Mesopotamia. This marked the beginning of the Akkadian culture under Sargon the Great (probably Nimrod of Gen. 10:8-12).

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  5. Thanks for the fascinating article! I think that this is just another one of many devastating arguments against YEC from a scientific viewpoint.

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  6. AdrianWatson says:

    in response to ( only had flint tools when Babylon was built ) primitive tools are used today in parts of south america ,,,New York has been built in another part of the planet

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  7. Hi I am definitely not a proponent of YEC, but I am trying to understand their exact position and all of its implications. Therefore I came up with the following question.

    Could YECs explain the tools found under the volcanic ash layer by assuming that human beings had travelled there just before the Flood? Then the wipeout caused by the Flood could have relocalized humanity to the region of Babel a hundred years later. Is such an explanation consistent with the YEC framework or does it lead to other contradictions in their ‘model’? Thank you for your thoughts. I greatly appreciate the content of your blog.

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    • I’ve wondered if Young Earth Creationists will ever admit to themselves that the reason geology does not at all support a global Noahic flood is because the Bible doesn’t either. Genesis speaks of a flooding of the ERETZ, the “land”, “country”, or “region”. After all, the Old Testament as well as the modern nation of the same name speaks of ERETZ YISRAEL: “the Land of Israel” or “the Nation of Israel”, not PLANET Israel. There is no good reason to assume that ERETZ referring to “planet earth”, a concept that the ancient Hebrews simply did not have.

      Those who don’t read Hebrew will wrongly assume that “everything under heaven” is a global reference but it is simply an expression of “everything under the sky”: all one sees in looking to the horizon. (Indeed, “the circle of the ERETZ” in scripture is a reference to the horizon and the circular disk of land it defines. It is NOT a description of a “spherical earth” as many Young Earth Creationist hope.)

      A GLOBAL flood is a tradition, not a statement of scripture. “Earth” in 1611 English had a meaning very similar to ancient Hebrew for ERETZ: it meant the opposite of sky (the heavens) and the earth was what one tilled. It was basically “the ground” on which people walk. Construing ERETZ as “planet earth” is anachronistic—which is why the Biblical scholars (myself included) have long recognized it as “land” or “country”. Even in the KJV Bible, ERETZ is usually translated as “land” or “nation”. And it is sometimes applied to small regions, such as the ERETZ where the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

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  8. Bronte Hudson says:

    Did humans survive mt toga and if yes what tools were found

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Trackbacks

  1. […] him called Discoveries Show Early Mankind Was Advanced. To quote from a recent Naturalis Historia post where it came up, “advanced apparently means only capable of making stone tools?!” This […]

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  2. […] The Toba Super Eruption: A Non-Flood Catastrophe–The Artifacts Say Yes!- Another serious challenge to a young earth is presented by super eruptions of volcanoes. Check out this very interesting post. […]

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  3. […] excellent blog Naturalis Historia has a post on the Toba supervolcano, which erupted a volume of 2800 km3 of tephra about 74,000 years ago. Ash deposits from this […]

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