Transition to Farming in the Balkans

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Obre . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240

The Farming Frontier on the Southern Steppes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 242

The nature of the transition from foraging to farming in southeastern Europe is the subject of considerable debate among archaeologists. It is not possible to draw a neat distinction between the argument for adoption and even innovation of agricultural practices by local foragers and the establishment of farming communities by immigrants. New data suggest that the widely accepted model of Neolithic colonization by makers of painted pottery from early farming communities in Greece and Anatolia may not hold true. Pottery and domesticates found in contexts associated with indigenous hunter-gatherers indicate that Mesolithic foragers may have played an important role in the adoption of the Neolithic economy.

The Balkans make up a complex geographic region in the shape of triangular peninsula with a wide northern border, narrowing to a tip as it extends to the south, embedded in southeastern Europe. The Turkish word balkan, which means "woody mountain," was introduced in the fifteenth century to name a mountain in northern Bulgaria. It was adapted quickly to the more general area of the mountain ranges between the Adriatic and the Black Seas. The term "Balkan Peninsula" was first used in the nineteenth century to designate this area. We use the term "Balkan" today in cultural and political nomenclature, but it also is appropriate in denoting a concrete geographical and historical region.

In the northeast and north, the Balkans are exposed to the steppe regions of the Ukraine and to the Carpathian Basin. The Black, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Adriatic Seas surround them in the east, south, and the southwest. The straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles in the southeast are a natural gateway between the Balkans and Anatolia and beyond to Asia. In the northwest, the valley of the Danube and the flat Pannonian plain connect it to central Europe. Proceeding north from Greece into the central and northern Balkans, one moves from a dominantly Mediterranean and sub-Mediterranean environment into an increasingly Continental one. Mountains divide the region into small units, in which distinct ethnic groups have been able to sustain themselves. They also subdivide every district into vertical ecological zones, ranging from more valuable lowland farming areas to less valuable wooded or rocky uplands. This variety of ecological niches supported different cultures in close proximity to one another.


By the beginning of the Boreal period (c. 8000 b.c.), the environment of the Balkans was similar to that of today. The region was populated with hunter-gatherer groups, but while their presence in central and northern Europe is well documented, only a thin settlement pattern is observable in the Balkans. Mesolithic sites are unequally distributed throughout the region, and some clusters are reported along the Aegean seacoast as well in Thessaly, the Dinaric Alps in the Adriatic, the Ionian hinterland, and along the Danube in the northern Balkans. It has been hypothesized that the Mesolithic social system comprised exogamous and territorial bands economically based on common access to resources. Indeed, the conclusion often drawn is that large parts of the region were completely uninhabited during the Early Postglacial period, and the absence of Mesolithic habitation from many areas has been accepted as a fact by numerous scholars.

The initial appearance of Neolithic communities, characterized by tell type sites in Thessaly, therefore was linked to the farming communities that were believed to have migrated from the Near East and colonized the southern Balkans. It became broadly accepted that immigrating farmers brought all the knowledge and skills of farming, with cultivation removing many of the risks and uncertainties, allowing accumulation and redistribution and thus making sharing undesirable.

In this orthodox model, the transition to farming in the Balkans was related to intrusive agricultural communities originally from Anatolia that established Neolithic settlements, from which they gradually colonized the entire region. Thus, the microregion settled first by Anatolian migrants, and identified as the primary center of "Neolithization" in Europe, corresponds with the distribution of "preceramic" and "monochrome" pottery occupations in the active floodplains of Thessaly on the southern tip of the Balkans. The colonization of the entire region is believed to relate to a subsequent wave of northward migration that was recognized in the dispersal of pottery with white or red painted decoration in the northern and eastern Balkans and of Cardial-Impresso pottery along the Adriatic coast.

The prevailing assumption of many archaeologists has been that fully formed Neolithic communities spread northward along a dynamic agricultural frontier zone. This model suggests a steady expansion of people into Europe, driven by population growth resulting from agricultural surpluses and the displacement or absorption of the sparse hunter-gatherer populations. Archaeologists often have drawn maps of the distribution of Early Neolithic sites and dates that have depicted a continuously moving Neolithic frontier in which there was no prolonged chronological overlap between hunter-gatherers and the onset of early farming. The lack of evidence of hunter-gatherer sites in the Balkans led to speculation that an extremely sparse Mesolithic population would have allowed farmers to expand and colonize the region rapidly.

It is evident, however, that the present distribution of Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic sites has been very much affected by long-term and catastrophic processes that restructured the geomorphologic features and reshaped the relief of the Balkans in the Holocene. In plotting sites on a general map of southeastern Europe and in hypothesizing spatial discontinuity between Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements, we must take into consideration the fact that the patterns available to research are the outcomes of consecutive cycles of alluviation, erosion, and sedimentation; the rise in Mediterranean sea level; and modern anthropogenic impacts on the landscape. Many coastal and riverside sites still remain unavailable, and others have been erased entirely from the surface as the result of intensive present-day agricultural activities. The distinction between Neolithic and Mesolithic sites also has been based on general typological categorizations that were used to define the cultural sequences of hunter-gatherers and farmers. This dichotomy maintains the perception that farming practices could be embedded only in typologically determined Neolithic "cultural" contexts. From this point of view it is impossible to ignore the fact that the spatial distribution of Early Neolithic settlements may not reflect the actual spread of farming practices and changes in subsistence strategies.

The idea that early farming in southeastern Europe spread through its adoption by local foragers, rather than through migration, is still not accepted widely. The Balkans often are excluded as an area of primary domestication of wild einkorn (Triticum boeoticum), although on the tip of the Balkan Peninsula present-day habitats for wild einkorn exist. Among the archaeobotanical remains collected from the Mesolithic deposits in the Theopetra cave in Greece, wild einkorn wheat has been reported. Although einkorn wheat appears to be less common than two other founder cereals, emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and barley (Hordeum vulgare) in the Levantine Neolithic, this is certainly not the case in the Balkans, where much richer remains of einkorn wheat are available. Einkorn prevails over emmer wheat in the number of pure hoards, retaining its principal role throughout the Neolithic and even later periods. In emphasizing the importance of new subsistence practices introduced by first farmers, such as replacement of collected seeds by cultivated cereals, we should not overlook that the Neolithic pollen records in the Balkans do not reflect forest clearing and the creation of patches of cultivated land. Thus, we should not exclude the possibility that indigenous foragers were more involved in the establishment of farming communities in the Balkans than archaeologists admit.


A revolution in cuisine occurred when Neolithic villagers started to use pottery. Since V. Gordon Childe put forward the idea that pot making is a virtually universal characteristic of Neolithic communities as well an indicator of its cultural identity and origin, the appearance of pottery in the Balkans has been considered to mark the dispersal of Early Neolithic cultures from Anatolia. In the absence of precise dating evidence and without the retrieval of botanical and faunal remains, the assessment of any particular site in the Balkans as being of Neolithic age traditionally has been made on the presence of pottery fragments.

From this perspective, after the Anatolian immigrants, who either did not use pottery or made monochrome pottery, gained their initial toehold on the floodplains of Thessaly, subsequent northward expansions were correlated with regional pottery distributions assumed to reflect two streams of migrating farmers. The first was defined by the dispersal of white or red painted pottery that marked the inland migration toward the southern Carpathian Basin, which eventually became the Starčevo-Körös-Criş complex of Neolithic cultures. The second migration was linked to the Cardial-Impresso pottery dispersal, restricted to the eastern Adriatic and Ionian coastal area. In one microregion recognized in the central Balkans in Bosnia, the two streams overlapped. The combination of painted and Cardial-Impresso pottery identified in the Early Neolithic settlement deposits at Obre was interpreted as a composite Starčevo-Impresso culture.

The validity of this model of northward migration and colonization by farmers has been questioned. Emphasis has been laid on the growing evidence of pottery deposited in the so-called aceramic settlement layers, which strongly contradicts the concept of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic in Greece. Some researchers, however, continue to interpret the transition to farming in Greece as having taken place through the arrival of the first occupants, bringing with them the full Neolithic "package" of domesticated plants and animals but not pottery. The idea of a demographic explosion in the floodplains of the rivers and lakes in Thessaly first occupied by immigrant farmers and a subsequent rapid migration toward the northern Balkans also remains speculative. Indeed, it took twelve hundred years to colonize the nearest floodplains in Macedonia and another three hundred years to reach the Danube in the northern Balkans.

The traditional concept of white painted ware as the earliest Neolithic pottery of the central and eastern Balkans also has been called into question. Several clusters of well-stratified sites exist, where layers of unpainted pottery—with monochrome and Impresso decoration—are separated stratigraphically from those of white painted ceramics. Such monochrome and Impresso assemblages in Poljanica, Orlovec, Koprivec, and Obhodov in the eastern Balkans have been related contextually to microliths, trapezes, and rudimentary agriculture. In the central and northern Balkans forty-six sites with early ceramics have been identified. Essentially, archaeologists found that the monochrome and Impresso pottery at these sites is embedded contextually in semisedentary or sedentary hunter-gatherer occupations in the region, such as at Lepenski Vir and Padina in the Danube gorges. The pottery assemblages consist principally of monochrome ceramics of simple forms and limited Impresso techniques. Ninety percent of the pots are undecorated, and the decorations on the rest consist of impressed ornaments, shaped by fingertips and fingernails, the edges of freshwater shells, and awls.

Unfortunately, most of the Iron Gates pottery assemblages are still scantily published. In interpreting the Mesolithic cultural phases at the Lepenski Vir I and II sites, the excavator pointed out that monochrome pottery fragments had been found lying on the floors of fifteen Mesolithic trapezoidal buildings. In the initial reports, the Lepenski Vir pottery was discussed out of its context, owing to its presumed inconsistency with a model of hunter-gatherer technology that excluded ceramic manufacture; instead, it was attributed to vertical displacement of Neolithic artifacts and postdepositional disturbance. Later research confirmed, however, that the pottery indeed was associated with the famous stone statues and other decorated sculptures, altars, and artifacts ornamented with various symbols and deposited on the floors of the same buildings.

Most intriguing is the correlation of complete pots found in situ, stone statues and sculptures, and groups of newborns and children buried below the floors in the rear of certain buildings. A remarkable symbolic structure was preserved in centrally positioned trapezoidal building 54. A pot with spiral ornaments, illustrating local decorative principles and symbolism, was placed deliberately in what was identified some years ago as the sanctuary of a sun deity. It was associated with the burials of two newborns, red and black sculptures, and an altar.

It has been hypothesized that early ceramics at Lepenski Vir indicate increased interaction between the two social networks, farming communities outside the gorge and the hunter-gatherer community inside, which led to the collapse of the latter group. Alternatively, it is possible that the pots served as containers for foods that appeared in the context of a dietary shift from aquatic resources to terrestrial resources. As stable isotope analyses have shown, terrestrial resources probably included a major agricultural component, despite the fact that domesticates have not been documented in these contexts.

In contrast to the prevailing assumption that pottery is a marker of settled Neolithic life, it is possible to argue to the contrary. We can say instead that the pottery at Lepenski Vir was a new technology and a novel medium used for visual display, whether as serving dishes for the living or in sacrificial rituals to dead children buried beneath the buildings. This pottery acted as an integral part of a set of symbols consisting of standardized settlement architecture, location of burials and burial practices, stone sculptures and statues, and mortars and altars, which, taken together, reflect an ideological integration and define a cultural identity of nonfarming communities in the region.

A similar pattern of early monochrome and Impresso pottery dispersal has been seen in Ionian and Adriatic coastal areas. In some contexts, it was connected with hunter-gatherer stone tool assemblages. This ornamental principle evidently was of long duration, as painted pottery did not exist in coastal regions before the Middle Neolithic. Although no direct evidence of pre-Neolithic pottery production is available in the Balkans, we can take into account the presence of some unbaked clay masses as well as certain associated monochrome, primitive, and slightly baked pottery documented in a Late Mesolithic context in the Theopetra cave. We also have mentioned the typologically and chronologically well grounded hypothesis that Thessalian ceramic techniques were developed on the spot and were not part of the baggage of immigrating farmers.

Not many radiocarbon dates are available for the Balkans, to anchor the irregular distribution of monochrome and Impresso pottery chronologically. The dates we have show the evident contemporaneity of the contexts, whether in the southern or northern Balkans or in Ionian or Adriatic coastal areas. These styles of pottery occurred over a very broad area but in a narrow time span in the Balkan interior and along the Ionian and Adriatic coasts during the second half of the seventh millennium b.c. Probability distributions of the radiocarbon dates from Lepenski Vir, Donja Branjevina, and Poljanica in the northern and eastern Balkans, Sidari on the island of Corfu, and Vela Spilja on the eastern Adriatic coast reflect striking parallels with one another and with early pottery-using levels at Sesklo and Achilleion in the southernmost part of the Balkans. No chronological gap is evident between the first appearances of pottery in Greece and pottery in the Balkans. The contextual attachment of monochrome and Impresso pottery to the hunter-gatherer world and its widespread distribution contradict the traditional models of centers of so-called Neolithization and subsequent migration toward the margins of the Early Neolithic world.

The basic premise of this discussion is that the dispersal of farming in southeastern Europe was embedded in the existing regional, pre-Neolithic social and historical structures. Dispersal was effected by the network of social relationships and contacts and by traditional socially and culturally defined principles of inter-generation and inter-community transmission of knowledge. Through contact in the course of local and regional migrations, people were the agency for such transmissions, for the incorporation of such innovations as domesticates and pottery, and for changing the structural framework of the social context.


Evidence from the tracing of lineages in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from extant European populations supports the evidence from pottery distributions of a strong indigenous component in the transition from foraging to farming in the Balkans. It is believed that most modern European mtDNA was formed neither through Early Upper Palaeolithic colonization by modern humans nor as a result of Neolithic immigration from the Near East. Instead, mtDNA is thought to have been distributed via Late Pleistocene movements within Europe itself. It has been suggested that less than 10 percent of extant lineages date back to the initial colonization of Europe by anatomically modern humans and that perhaps 10–20 percent of lineages arrived during the Neolithic. Most other lineages seem to have arrived during the Middle Upper Palaeolithic and expanded during the Late Upper Palaeolithic. The Neolithic contributions to extant mtDNA vary regionally, with incoming lineages in the minority, compared with the situation of the indigenous Mesolithic. This is true even in those regions where pioneering colonization of uninhabited areas has been postulated. Regional analysis shows that the Neolithic contribution to mtDNA of incoming lineages was about 20 percent in southeast, central, northwest, and northeast Europe. In Mediterranean coastal areas, it was even lower than 10 percent, similar to the percentage in Scandinavia.

Although this research is still in its infancy and the subject of some controversy, the available mtDNA evidence indicates that immigrating farmers played a relatively subsidiary role in the introduction of farming to the Balkans. It appears instead that populations that had been resident in the area for thousands of years were not replaced or driven out by immigrating farmers from Anatolia. The archaeological boundary that reflects the isolation of the Adriatic coast is evidence of the dominant social and ideological continuity, which correlates well with the low percentage (about 10 percent) of incoming Near Eastern genetic lineages. Elsewhere in the Balkans, the higher contribution of Near Eastern genetic stock (about 20 percent) may correlate with circulation of people and goods over long distances, which accelerated the social and ideological restructuring of hunter-gatherer communities.


After these early traces of indigenous ceramic innovation and adoption of Neolithic characteristics by hunter-gatherers, a more robust and consolidated group of Neolithic communities developed in many parts of the Balkans during the final quarter of the seventh millennium and the first part of the sixth millennium b.c. Marked differences exist between the settlements found in the southern Balkans and those in the central and northern Balkans. The former sites are more closely related to contemporaneous sites in Greece, while the latter reflect a clear adaptation to a temperate, Continental environment. Named for type sites and geographical features, the southern complex embraces cultures known as Kremikovci and Karanovo I, while the northern complex comprises the Starčevo-Körös-Criş cultures.

In contrast to the earlier distribution of monochrome and Impresso pottery in both interior and coastal areas, a clear distinction between the Adriatic coast and the Balkan interior emerged at this time. While red or white painted pottery was adopted throughout most of the Balkans, a Cardial-Impresso ornamental technique came into use during the final centuries of the seventh millennium b.c. along the Ionian and Adriatic coasts, in a band that extended 30 kilometers into the Adriatic hinterland. Neither painted pottery technology nor accompanying artifacts arrived on the eastern Adriatic coast. The pattern may suggest selective processes of integration of the "Neolithic package" into existing hunter-gatherer social systems and subsistence strategies.

The Kremikovci–Karanovo I Complex. Starting around 6200 b.c., numerous substantial Neolithic settlements appeared along the rivers of western and southern Bulgaria and adjacent territories. These floodplain communities adopted some, but not all, of the architectural techniques in use in Greece, building houses from timber and clay but without stone foundations or mud bricks. Their sites comprised clusters of small, rectangular, one-room or two-room houses that were repaired and rebuilt over time to form mounds, or tells, of superimposed habitation. Later houses were built in line with the floor plans of earlier ones, indicating continuity of occupation over several centuries.

Two of the most important Early Neolithic sites in this area are found at Chevdar in western Bulgaria and Karanovo in south-central Bulgaria. At both these sites, farming communities chose locations close to good alluvial soils for the cultivation of einkorn and emmer wheat, barley, peas, beans, and vetch. At Chevdar, palaeobotanical analysis of large, homogeneous samples points to a sophisticated crop-processing technique. Among domesticated animals, sheep and goats were the most important, with cattle and pigs in subsidiary roles. In the lowest layer of the Karanovo tell (Karanovo I), rectangular houses were about 7–8 meters on a side and often contained ovens and grindstones.

The pottery of the Kremikovci–Karanovo I complex consists of first white and then red painted ceramics in a variety of vessel forms. In addition to pottery vessels, Neolithic peoples began making figurines and models of human beings, animals, furniture, and buildings. Of greatest importance are the anthropomorphic figurines found from Macedonia north to southern Hungary. Many represent women; others have no recognizable sexual features, although they are seldom explicitly male. Although archaeologists are not certain of the purpose of these figurines, Douglass Bailey has suggested that they were part of the ceremonies by which the social units reflected by the architecture of these settlements were created and maintained.

Burials from Kremikovci–Karanovo I sites are relatively scarce. Many of them are of children or infants. Inhumation burials are found commonly under house floors or close to buildings, sometimes in rubbish pits. It is difficult to generalize about the nature and quantity of grave goods. When grave goods are present, they generally consist of ceramic vessels, bone tools and ornaments, and flint tools.

The Starčevo-Körös-Criş Complex. The earliest Neolithic in the central and northern Balkans is defined by the Neolithic settlements clustered into the Starčevo-Körös-Criş complex. It consists of groups known as "Starčevo" in the central Balkans and "Körös" in the Carpathian Basin. Coarse barbotine (a rough application of clay that then is streaked with a finger or a stick, so that parallel ridges are raised) and impressed wares dominate in both groups. In contrast, red monochrome and painted pottery items are insignificant components in the development of these groups.

Orthodox interpretations of the southeastern European Neolithic transition still maintain that part of the population of these southern Balkan communities migrated northward separately and established the Criş group in enclaves in Transylvania, Romania. The primary Criş colony was recognized at Gura Baciului and defined by red monochrome pottery and white dotted decoration. The concept of a Starčevo culture was introduced in the 1920s when the type site at Starčevo, about 20 kilometers east of Belgrade, was excavated. In the 1930s Harvard University and the American School of Prehistoric Research became involved in research at this site. At the same time, excavations started at the site of Kotacpart in Hungary. Pottery similar to that at Starčevo was found at other sites located along the Körös River in Hungary, representing a group that became known as the Körös culture. A lack of well-stratified sites still favors typological ceramic sequences as a basic tool in establishing the Early Neolithic chronological framework in the region.

This grouping takes into account typological similarity and variation in pottery styles, but it also is driven by the recognition of modern political territorial boundaries. Thus, "Starčevo culture" relates to the Early Neolithic sites in Serbia, whereas "Körös" is applied to those groups located in southeastern Hungary and "Criş" to Early Neolithic sites in Romania. Radiocarbon dating shows that the Starčevo-Körös-Criş complex appeared as early as 6200 b.c. and lasted until the second half of the sixth millennium b.c., indicating a chronological overlap with the Early Neolithic sites of Thessaly, Macedonia, and southern Bulgaria and with the early Linearbandkeramik settlements of the Carpathian Basin.

It is not just pottery distribution that marks the Starčevo-Körös-Criş complex. High-quality "Balkan" flint, also termed "yellow-spotted" flint, represents the most abundant raw material within the complex. Although a clear picture of the source of this raw material is still lacking, there are indications that certain regions of northeastern Bulgaria are the most probable locations for its origin. At other sites, local raw materials were used, particularly in more northern areas. At the Körös site of Endro˝d 39, however, a hoard contained 101 blades made from Bulgarian flint.

The Starčevo agricultural settlements in the valleys are situated on riverbanks or low terraces, set on mounds of alluvial sand and levees that rise above marshes. The settlement patterns are considered to be "tactical" in the sense that locations were occupied according to short-term needs rather than long-term strategies. There is little spatial differentiation within the settlements. Starčevo sites contain rich remains of cultural material and food residues, but with thin stratigraphic layers and enigmatic evidence for permanent structures. Quadrangular houses are reported in the latest phase, but some researchers have claimed that pits that form the main archaeological features at Starčevo sites are pit dwellings or pit huts.

The best example of a Starčevo settlement is the late seventh and early sixth millennia b.c. camp at Divostin in Serbia. The dwellings at Divostin were round or elliptical in plan. Some had concentrations of stones in the middle of their floors, which would have supported posts holding up the roofs of pit houses. In some buildings, small hearths were built. The Divostin pit houses were not very large, measuring no more than 4–5 meters in diameter. They were no deeper than 0.5 meters. A variety of ceramics, flint tools, animal bones, and anthropomorphic figurines were deposited in the dwellings. In the Danube gorges, Starčevo settlements frequently were stratified above Mesolithic habitation layers, and the houses maintained a uniform trapezoidal form and size as well the spatial structure of the settlement. The pattern is in marked contrast to the long-term tell settlements and surface houses found at this time in the southern Balkans.

Emmer and einkorn wheat, six-row barley, and peas have been found at Starčevo settlements, but a lack of attention to seed retrieval has minimized empirical support for hypotheses on the nature of plant exploitation. It is broadly accepted that agricultural practice may have been minimal at this time. There are many Starčevo sites, on the other hand, whose animal bone assemblages have been analyzed in detail. Domesticated sheep and goats prevailed in stockbreeding, but cattle and pigs did not play a significant role in the subsistence patterns of the Starčevo and Körös cultures. The habitats were less well suited for breeding sheep and goats than cattle, as the wild ancestor of the cattle, the aurochs (Bos primigenius), used to live here in large herds. Some researchers have argued that there was local domestication of cattle and pigs, but faunal data are equivocal at best on this point. An alternative pattern of animal use was identified in the Danube gorges sites and on Transylvanian sites. There, a small variety of cattle predominated among the domesticated animals, whereas sheep and goats seemed less important. Pigs were almost entirely absent. At Körös sites in the levee and back swamp habitats of southern Hungary, fish bones are especially common, indicating a substantial aquatic component in the diet.

The burials were dispersed in habitation areas across the region. Skeletons are found in a crouched position, with almost no grave offerings. Anauroch's head with horn cores is associated with some burials, and various animal bones were placed in others. A large pit dug between the two buried people, with no grave goods and filled with a large amount of bones of dogs and wild horses, may provide indirect evidence of ritual or competitive feasting.


The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture in the Balkans cannot be explained simply in terms of Neolithic immigrants originating in Anatolia and pushing steadily northward and westward, displacing indigenous foragers. Instead, it appears that there was an initial period during which pottery production and incipient agriculture were broadly and rapidly disseminated among pre-Neolithic communities during the second half of the seventh millennium b.c. Subsequently, Early Neolithic communities with strong local roots appeared in the final centuries of the seventh millennium b.c. In the southern Balkans, substantial settlements, such as Chevdar and Karanovo I, showed signs of long-term occupation and a strong commitment to agriculture, whereas in the central and northern Balkans, settlements of the Starčevo-Körös-Criş complex appear to have been shorter-term habitations with a broader spectrum of subsistence resources.

See alsoIron Gates Mesolithic (vol. 1, part 2); Crops of the Early Farmers (vol. 1, part 3); Obre (vol. 1, part 3); The Farming Frontier on the Southern Steppes (vol. 1, part 3).


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