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Cultural Geography

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Cultural Geography

The near infinite varieties of culture are what make human society exciting and life worth living. Think of it: where would we be without art, music, dance, language, story-telling, religion, cuisine, and movies? How would we communicate? What would we believe in? How could we even have real identities?

Culture goes hand in glove with geography. Wherever people go, culture tags along. People leave cultural artifacts in the places they settle, fashioning a cultural landscape. Read on to find out more about the fascinating ways that cultural geography shapes not just us, but the whole planet.

Culture in Human Geography

Culture includes mentifacts like religion and language, artifacts like books and movies, and sociofacts such as gender identity. Culture helps create identity, meaning, and continuity in human society.

In human geography, culture is not just limited to cultural geography. Economic geography recognizes that one of the reasons that economic activities vary from place to place is cultural difference. Political geography derives much of its insights from cultural geography, given that so many political issues that involve ethnicity, boundaries, and territory stem from cultural differences. Agricultural geography is also based in culture, and in population geography, the roots of migration are often cultural.

Therefore, cultural geography can be seen as a fundamental part of human geography. This is because, if we want to understand a human society, we naturally must first ask what ethnicity or ethnicities it includes, what languages are spoken, and what religions are practiced. Without cultural geography, it is largely impossible to interpret even data like population or income. So, you will see that in almost every geographical study, culture is key to understanding.

Introduction to Cultural Geography

Let's take a look at the foundations of this critical field.

History of Cultural Geography

US cultural geography grew out of Carl Sauer's rejection of Environmental Determinism (more on this below). Sauer (1889-1975), a geographer at the University of California-Berkeley, was the "godfather" of the Berkeley School of Latin Americanist Geography. His students, and their students, fanned out across the geography departments of the US, diffusing "Sauerian" cultural geography far and wide.

Sauer advocated the study of cultural landscapes over time to understand the imprint societies have on the physical landscape. His most famous article on this topic was 'The Morphology of Landscape' (1925).1

Cultural geographers are skilled in "reading the landscape," which means interpreting places, spaces, and regions based on the cultural artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts found there. They might find this evidence of culture by talking to people, taking photos, or poring over maps, for example. To them, the cultural landscape is like a palimpsest, a type of ancient manuscript whose pages have been erased and written over numerous times. Every landscape is a jumble of "texts" you can interpret from different eras and cultures. And some geographers go deeper than just looking—they also analyze the tastes, smells, and sounds of the cultural landscape.

Since the 1970s, cultural geographers practicing the so-called "new cultural geography" have searched far and wide for inspiration in their quests to interpret the cultural landscape in ever more complex and nuanced ways. Marxism, feminism, cultural studies, post-structural philosophy, and many other approaches have been used to turn cultural geography into a highly theoretical field that is as varied as culture itself. Within this variety of subjects and approaches, some commonalities stand out.

Basic Concepts in Cultural Geography

Below are some commonly invoked geographic terms that cultural geographers use.

Place

In cultural geography, places are geographic locations that humans imbue with meaning. This meaning is often called the Sense of Place.

Cultural Identity

Each culture or subculture has defining characteristics that make up a separate identity. Individual people can have multiple cultural identities. Cultural identities shift over time and are passed down from generation to generation.

Cultural Landscape

The physical landscape is overlain by human culture. Specifically, it bears the imprint of mentifacts, artifacts, and sociofacts left there by the cultural identities that have inhabited all the places that comprise it. The most common unit of analysis in cultural geography is the cultural landscape.

A cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a culture group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium. The cultural landscape is the result.1

Patterns and Processes

Cultural geography studies the ways that culture is organized in space. An example of a cultural pattern is the spatial arrangement of the speakers of a language. An example of a cultural process is diffusion.

Diffusion

A core concept in cultural geography, diffusion refers to the many ways that cultural artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts move from one place to another.

For an in-depth understanding of cultural diffusion, see our articles on Stimulus Expansion, Hierarchical Expansion, Contagious Expansion, and Relocation Diffusion. For the AP Human Geography exam, you will very likely need to know how the different types of diffusion relate to religions and languages.

Relationship between Geography and Culture

Carl Sauer became the most important US geographer because he rebelled against a dominant paradigm of Environmental Determinism of luminaries like Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932): that the physical landscape determines human culture. Instead, he, and his many students, asserted that people are powerful forces in shaping the physical landscape. Sauer advocated possibilism, in other words.

Yes, there are constraints put on human activity by the Earth, its climate, geology, and other species. But human culture, according to Sauer, has had a far greater impact on the Earth than most people realize. He and his students explored Latin America and other regions in vast detail to document and interpret just how much impact humans have had and continue to have.

Cultural Geography, Agricultural terraces in Peru, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Agricultural terraces in the Peruvian Andes are a cultural landscape demonstrating how people shape the physical landscape

Importance of Cultural Geography

Cultural geography's importance in overturning paradigms of environmental determinism should not be forgotten, as it is still relevant. Cultural geography often searches for harmony between human activity and nature, and as such as been highly influential in fields such as urban geography and urban planning.

Many cultural geography studies look at how people create resilient rural landscapes over time, by shaping the physical landscape while adapting to natural processes. The cultural geography viewpoint is that people are not separate from nature, but rather intertwined with nature, particularly in traditional settings where societies respect the environment rather than seeking to control or destroy it for profit. In this way, via its Sauerian roots, cultural geography has influenced environmentalism and environmental studies.

Cultural Geography Examples

Cultural geography offers us a vast panorama. Here are just a couple of examples.

Diffusion of Religions

All religions start in a single place known as a hearth. Some religions then diffuse, spreading outward in different directions. A few religions encircle the globe. The reasons this happens, and the consequences, are profound.

Southwestern Asia is notable as the hearth for several different religions. This is because these religions have similar origins. Three significant religions from southwestern Asia—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are culturally related and have all diffused worldwide, though in different ways and for different reasons. Judaism, an ethnic religion, was carried mainly by ethnically Jewish people who lived in concentrated communities within urban areas, forming the Jewish diaspora. Then, after centuries of terrible persecution ending in the Holocaust, Jews were able to return to the hearth of their religion—Palestine—and re-establish a Jewish state known as Israel. Christianity, a universalizing religion, spread worldwide via conquest and conversion; Islam spread in a similar way over much of Africa, Asia, and Europe, but did not make much headway in the Americas. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have much in common, but are also often in conflict within their own religions and across the three religions.

Cultural Geography, Islamic landscape New York, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Islamic landscape in Queens, New York

You can see from this that cultural geography leads right into political geography. Again and again, culture forms the basis for the ways humans govern themselves and set up boundaries and territories.

The AP Human Geography exam often incorporates culture and politics into the same questions. Cultural constructs like ethnicity are frequently tied to political processes like Devolution. You can read more in our article on Political Geography.

Diffusion through Colonialism and Imperialism

The political geographical processes of colonialism and imperialism have always had cultural dimensions. "Gold, God, and glory," the three oft-mentioned motivations for European global expansion after 1450, include the cultural dimensions of spreading Christianity together with the economic dimension of financial wealth. Indeed, every time humans set out to conquer other parts of the world, they bring their culture with them, even if the primary motivation isn't changing the culture of their new subjects.

cultural geography capsicum studysmarterFig. 3 - Capsicum chili peppers grown in San Rafael Bulacan in the Philippines. Chilis diffused via the Columbian Exchange from Mexico across the world, including other Spanish colonies like the Philippines

European colonialism explains why the dominant religions in the Americas are Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (both of which are forms of Christianity); why the dominant languages are English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese; why the dominant architectural forms are copied from Europe; and why the dominant value systems are based on European cultures. It is also how the Columbian Exchange resulted in the worldwide diffusion of indigenous crops like hot peppers, potatoes, and corn.

Visit most cultural landscapes in the Americas and you will see that evidence of artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts from Europe dominate, though these will be a mixture from different eras and cultures. Depending on where you are, you may also detect a predominance of indigenous culture as well as culture from African and Asian diasporas. The fascinating varieties of influences in each and every landscape have come about through the ways that all these cultures have interacted with each other and with the physical landscape.

Cultural Geography - Key takeaways

    • Carl Sauer, a US geographer, was the 'godfather' of cultural geography
    • The cultural landscape is an all-encompassing term for the artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts that overlay the physical landscape
    • Cultural geography includes the key concepts of place, cultural landscape, cultural patterns, cultural processes, cultural identity, and diffusion
    • Examples of cultural geography include the diffusion of religions and the diffusion of culture via colonialism and imperialism. Processes of cultural diffusion are closely tied to political geography.

References

  1. Sauer, C. O. 1925. 'The morphology of landscape.' University of California Publications in Geography 2 (2):19-53. 1925.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Geography

-Diffusion of Islam to New York City

-Diffusion through imperialism and colonialism

-Cultural landscapes

-Reading the landscape

-Cultural artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts

Modern cultural geography that looks at the cultural elements of space, place, and landscapes through lenses such as Marxism, feminism, and other methods.

Cultural geography is the study of the imprint of human cultures on the physical landscape, and it is important because it shows us the influence of human beings across time and space on the planet.

Cultural geography focuses on the artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts produce by human cultural identities as they occur in space, place, and landscape.

Cultural geography's scope includes the entire spectrum of human cultural activity in space and across time, as it is manifested in the landscape.

Final Cultural Geography Quiz

Question

Which of the following was Sauer rebelling against?


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Answer

Environmental Determinism

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Carl Sauer founded the ______________________________

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Berkeley School of Latin Americanist Geography

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The following is NOT an example of cultural geography:

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The per capita income of Benin

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Question

A definition of Sense of Place is :

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The meanings people attach to places

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Question

Which is the true statement about cultural identity?

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They can change and people can have more than one

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Sauer's classic essay is:

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The Morphology of Landscape

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Question

A  geographer associated with Environmental Determinism is:

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Answer

Ellen Churchill Semple

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Question

Select the true statement about cultural geography:

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Answer

It searches for harmony between people and nature

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Which statement is NOT characteristic of cultural geography?

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Humans are powerless to stop global warming

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Question

What are three religions that originated in western Asia and spread worldwide?

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Answer

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism

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The term for the population of Jewish people who do not live in the hearth is ______________

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Answer

Diaspora

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Question

What was the term for the worldwide spread of culture that occurred as a result of European colonization of the Americas?

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Answer

The Columbian Exchange

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Question

(True or False) A Hindu temple in Illinois is an example of expansion diffusion.

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False, It is an example of relocation diffusion.

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Which statement is false?

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Within a couple centuries, Islam had spread worldwide.

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(True or False) An eruv is a type of Jewish kosher food.

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False. An eruv is a sacred space established in Orthodox Jewish communities.

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Mormonism was founded in New York state and spread west via land to Utah. Mormon places of worship are also found across the world. In this example, which part refers to expansion diffusion and which to relocation diffusion?

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Mormonism spread over land via expansion diffusion. Then, it spread overseas, around the world, via relocation diffusion.

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Question

The following is not a cultural element contributing to sense of place in an ethnic neighborhood inhabited mostly by people of a single religion:

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A Taco Bell restaurant

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From where did many Hindus in the US relocate, and why?

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From Uganda (east Africa). They were forced out during the dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s.

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Where on the inhabitable part of the Earth is it all but impossible for universalizing religions to diffuse?

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Anywhere that religion is expressly banned. (This happens both in countries without freedom of religion, and in places where local groups forbid religious conversion. However, many religions spread secretly and even illegally in such places anyway.)

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What is the name for a special type of food required by Muslims?

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Halal

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Question

What is an ethnic religion? 

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An ethnic religion is a religion that is intrinsically tied to a particular ethnicity, culture, and/or geographic location and is not usually meant to be universally applicable. 

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True or False: It is possible for a universalizing religion to become associated with a sense of ethnic identity. 

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Answer

True!

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Which of the following best describes religious syncretism? 

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The melding of Shinto and Buddhism in Feudal Japan

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Which of the following ethnic religions has the largest global population? 

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Hinduism

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Which of the following is NOT considered an ethnic religion? 

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Christianity

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True or False: According to Jewish belief, Brahman is the ultimate divine essence. 

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False! Belief in Brahman is associated with Hinduism, not Judaism. 

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Chinese folk religion is MOSTLY associated with which Chinese ethnic group? 

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Han

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Chinese folk religion was historically syncretic with which of the following religions? Select ALL that apply. 

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Confucianism

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Explain the concept of a closed religious community and provide at least one example. 

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A closed religious community is not open to converts and usually does not allow interfaith or interethnic marriages. The Druze in Syria and Lebanon are a closed community.

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According to Jewish beliefs, the Jewish patriarch who formed a covenant with God was named _______. 

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Abraham

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Which of the following are examples of ethnic religious diffusion? Select ALL that apply. 

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A group of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine build a synagogue in your neighborhood

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What is a universalizing religion? 

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A universalizing religion is meant to be universally applicable to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or geographic location.

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Explain the relationship between universalizing religions and exclusive religions.

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Many (but not all) universalizing religions are also exclusive religions. The end goal of an exclusive universalizing religion is to have every single person exclusively practicing one universalizing religion. 

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Which of the following statements apply to the development of a universalizing religion? Select all that apply. 

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They can be traced to specific founders

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What are the four largest universalizing religions today?

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Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism

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Which of the following is NOT a universalizing religion? 

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Hinduism

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Christianity emerged from which ethnic religion? 

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Judaism

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Which major historic empire made Christianity its state religion in 380 CE? 

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The Roman Empire

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Muslims are instructed to make a pilgrimage to this city at least once. 

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Answer

Mecca

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Muhammad proclaimed the teachings of Islam in and around what geographic region? 

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Answer

The Arabian Peninsula

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Which of the following is an example of relocation diffusion? 

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Japanese immigrants building a Buddhist temple in the United States

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Question

Choose the best answer. Tok Pisin is a:

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All of these

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Question

Classical Nahuatl was the lingua franca of what empire?

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Mexican (Aztec)

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What is the primary impetus for the development of lingua francas?

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Trade

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Sogdian was the lingua franca of:

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The Silk Road

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Why is French a prevalent lingua franca in Africa?

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Because France colonized much of the continent.

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Question

The significance of Julius Nyerere in the spread of Swahili was:

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He promoted it to unify Tanzania and provide a non-colonial lingua franca for Africa

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(True or false) All dialects of a lingua franca sound the same

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False. For example, English is spoken differently in Ghana, the Philippines, and India.

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(True or false) You do not have to be literate in a lingua franca to use it effectively

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True. You just have to be able to speak it well enough to be understood, particularly in trade interactions

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Question

Which is a reason that people prefer lingua francas?

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Answer

They are neutral, so you don't have to learn or speak the language of an enemy to communicate with them

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