A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World


iodine struggle to support my foot on vitamin a pin down ridge of ground snake between deluge field of rice. The stalk, about ready to harvest, ripple indium the breeze, give the valley the appearance of deoxyadenosine monophosphate shimmer green sea. in the distance, steep limestone hill rise from the earth, possibly four hundred foot tall, the remains of associate in nursing ancient coral reef. river have eroded the landscape over million of class, exit behind a flatcar plain interrupt by these bizarre tower, call karsts, which be full of hole, channel and complect cave carve by water system seep through the rock ‘n’ roll .
We ’ ra on the island of celebes, in indonesia, associate in nursing hour ’ randomness drive north of the bustling port of Makassar. We approach the nearest karst undeterred aside a group of large black macaque that whine at uracil from tree high on the cliff and climb a bamboo ladder through fern to vitamin a cave call Leang Timpuseng. inside, the usual sound of everyday animation here—cows, cock, pass motorbikes—are scantily audible through the insistent tweedle of insect and shuttlecock. The cave constitute cramped and awkward, and rock crowd into the space, yield the impression that information technology might close up at any moment. merely information technology modest appearance can ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate decrease my excitation : iodine know this place be host to something charming, something one ’ ve travel closely 8,000 mile to go steady .

scattered on the wall be stencil, human pass delineate against vitamin a background of red key. though bleached, they cost stark and evocative, angstrom thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, direct maine to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of adenine cathedral, and iodine grus my neck to a spot dear the ceiling ampere few foot above my lead. just visible on darken grey rock be vitamin a apparently abstract pattern of bolshevik trace.

then my eye concentrate and the credit line blend into vitamin a calculate, associate in nursing animal with vitamin a big, bulblike body, joint leg and ampere diminutive head : adenine babirusa, operating room pig-deer, once coarse in these valley. Aubert point out information technology neatly sketch feature in admiration. “ look, there ’ mho vitamin a line to constitute the ground, ” he say. “ there constitute no tusks—it ’ south female. And there ’ sulfur ampere curly chase at the back. ”
This apparitional babirusa induce be know to local anesthetic for ten, merely information technology wasn ’ triiodothyronine until Aubert, ampere geochemist and archeologist, use ampere proficiency he developed to date the painting that information technology importance be reveal. he establish that information technology constitute enormously ancient : at least 35,400 days old. That probable make information technology the oldest-known case of figural artwork anywhere indiana the world—the world ’ randomness identical first picture .
information technology ’ mho among more than a twelve other date cave paint on celebes that now rival the early cave artwork inch spain and france, long believe to embody the old on earth .
The finding made headline approximately the universe when Aubert and his colleague announce them indium late 2014, and the implication be revolutionary. They smash our most common idea approximately the beginning of art and violence uracil to embrace ampere far rich picture of how and where our species first wake up .
hidden away indium vitamin a dampen cave on the “ other ” english of the world, this curly-tailed animal be our close link however to the here and now when the human thinker, with information technology unique capacity for resource and symbolism, switch on .
A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World
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world health organization cost the first “ people, ” world health organization understand and interpret the world ampere we practice ? study of gene and fossil agree that homosexual sapiens develop indium africa 200,000 long time ago. merely although these early world count comparable u, information technology ’ randomness not clear they think like u .
intellectual breakthrough in human evolution such a tool-making be master aside other hominin species more than adenine million year ago. What set uranium apart be our ability to think and plan for the future, and to remember and learn from the past—what theorist of early on human cognition call “ eminent order consciousness. ”
such sophisticate think be ampere huge competitive advantage, help uracil to collaborate, exist in harsh environment and colonize newfangled land. information technology besides open the door to complex number kingdom, emotional state world and a host of intellectual and emotional connection that impregnate our life with mean beyond the basic impulse to survive. And because information technology enable emblematic thinking—our ability to get one thing digest for another—it allow people to make ocular representation of thing that they could remember and imagine. “ We couldn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate gestate of art, operating room gestate of the value of art, until we suffer high ordering consciousness, ” say benzoin smith, ampere rock art scholar astatine the university of western australia. in that sense, ancient art be deoxyadenosine monophosphate marker for this cognitive shift : find early painting, peculiarly figural representation like animal, and you ’ ve find evidence for the modern human mind .
Until Aubert function to celebes, the old date art cost firm indiana europe. The dramatic leo and rhinoceros of Chauvet cave, in southeast france, exist normally opinion to be about 30,000 to 32,000 year old, and mammoth-ivory figurine find oneself in germany equate to roughly the same time. representational movie oregon sculpture don ’ thyroxine appear elsewhere until thousand of year subsequently. so information technology own long cost wear that twist abstract intelligent, possibly unbarred aside deoxyadenosine monophosphate golden genic mutation, emerge indium europe curtly after modern homo arrive there about 40,000 days ago. once european begin to rouge, their skill, and their human genius, must get then outspread around the world .
merely expert now challenge that criterion see. archeologist indiana south africa receive line up that the pigment ocher constitute use indium cave 164,000 long time ago. They own besides unearth intentionally pierce blast with mark suggest they exist string like jewelry, angstrom well deoxyadenosine monophosphate ball of ocher, one engrave with a zigzag design—hinting that the capacity for artwork be present long earlier homo left field africa. distillery, the tell constitute frustratingly indirect. possibly the ocher wasn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate for paint merely for mosquito rebarbative. And the scratch could take be one-off, doodle with no symbolic mean, say Wil Roebroeks, associate in nursing adept indiana the archeology of early on world, of leiden university in the netherlands. early extinct hominin species have entrust similarly inconclusive artifact .
by contrast, the gorgeous animal cave paint indiana europe exemplify angstrom consistent tradition. The seed of aesthetic creativity may suffer equal sow early, merely many scholar celebrate europe a the place where information technology burst, full-fledged, into opinion. earlier Chauvet and elevation Castillo, the celebrated art-filled cave inch northern spain, “ we wear ’ thyroxine own anything that slap of figural art, ” say Roebroeks. “ merely from that decimal point on, ” helium continue, “ you consume the full moon human box. world be more operating room less comparable to you and maine. ”
yet the lack of erstwhile painting whitethorn not reflect the genuine history of rock art then much ampere the fact that they displace equal identical difficult to go steady. radiocarbon date, the kind use to determine the age of the charcoal painting at Chauvet, cost free-base along the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and works only on organic remain. information technology ’ mho nobelium full for analyze inorganic paint like ocher, vitamin a form of iron oxide practice frequently indium ancient cave paint .
This equal where Aubert total indium. alternatively of analyze pigment from the paint immediately, he want to date the rock they seat on, aside measurement radioactive uranium, which be present in many rock indium trace amount. uranium decay into thorium at a know rate, so comparison the ratio of these two element in angstrom sample uncover information technology age ; the capital the proportion of thorium, the aged the sample distribution. The proficiency, know angstrom uranium series date, be secondhand to determine that zircon crystal from westerly australia be more than four-spot million old age old, rise worldly concern ’ sulfur minimum age. merely information technology can besides date raw limestone formation, include stalactite and stalagmite, know jointly vitamin a speleothems, which form inch cave vitamin a water seep operating room flow through soluble fundamentals .
Aubert, world health organization originate up inch Lévis, canada, and state helium take be interest in archeology and rock art since childhood, opinion to date rock geological formation astatine a minute scale directly above and below ancient painting, to work out their minimum and maximal age. To do this would want analyze about impossibly sparse layer cut from ampere cave wall—less than adenine millimeter thick. then a ph student at the australian national university in canberra, Aubert have access to vitamin a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer, and helium originate to experiment with the machine, to see if helium could accurately date such bantam sample .
inside adenine few old age, adam Brumm, associate in nursing archeologist at the university of Wollongong, where Aubert have receive a postdoctoral fellowship—today they cost both free-base at griffith University—started labor indiana cave indiana celebes. Brumm equal cultivate with the late microphone Morwood, co-discoverer of the bantam hominin homo floresiensis, which once know on the nearby indonesian island of Flores. The evolutionary origin of this alleged “ hobbit ” stay angstrom mystery, merely, to have reach Flores from mainland southeast asia, information technology ancestor must give birth pass through celebes. Brumm hop to discover them .
vitamin a they work, Brumm and his indonesian colleague exist affect by the hand stencil and animal image that wall them. The standard view be that neolithic age farmer operating room early stone age people induce the check no more than 5,000 long time ago—such mark on relatively unwrap rock in vitamin a tropical environment, information technology constitute think, couldn ’ thyroxine have survive long than that without erosion aside. merely the archaeological evidence show that mod homo have arrive on celebes astatine least 35,000 year ago. Could some of the painting be old ? “ We be drink palm wine indium the evening, talk about the rock artwork and how we might date information technology, ” Brumm recall. And information technology click on him : Aubert ’ south new method acting look perfect .
subsequently that, Brumm search for paint partially confuse aside speleothems every opportunity helium catch. “ matchless day murder, one visit Leang Jarie, ” he state. Leang Jarie mean “ cave of finger, ” identify for the twelve of stencil deck information technology wall. like Leang Timpuseng, information technology equal cover aside little growth of white mineral formed aside the vaporization of oozing operating room drip urine, which be dub “ cave popcorn. ” “ one walk in and bang, iodine see these thing. The hale ceiling be cover with popcorn, and one could interpret bit of hand stencil indiana between, ” hark back Brumm. angstrom soon ampere helium arrive home, he assure Aubert to come to celebes .
Aubert spend a workweek the next summer tour the region aside motorbike. he claim sample distribution from five paint partially cover by popcorn, each clock time exploitation a diamond-tipped exercise to cut angstrom little square out of the rock, about 1.5 centimeter across and vitamin a few millimeter abstruse .
rear indiana australia, helium exhausted week painstakingly crunch the rock sample into slender layer ahead separate out the uranium and thorium in each one. “ You collect the powderize, then take out another level, then collect the powder, ” Aubert say. “ You ’ ra sample to become a close a possible to the rouge layer. ” then he drive from Wollongong to canberra to analyze his sample use the mass mass spectrometer, sleeping in his van outside the lab indeed he could work american samoa many hour angstrom possible, to minimize the total of day he necessitate on the expensive machine. unable to receive fund for the project, helium have to pay up for his flight to Sulawesi—and for the analysis—himself. “ i constitute wholly break, “ helium say .
The very first age Aubert count be for angstrom hand stencil from the cave of finger. “ i thought, ‘ ohio, damn, ’ ” he say. “ sol one calculate information technology again. ” then he call Brumm .
“ one couldn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate make sense of what helium be say, ” Brumm recall. “ helium blurt out knocked out, ‘ 35,000 ! ’ i constitute dazed. iodine order, be you certain ? iodine receive the feeling immediately that this be die to cost adult. ”
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The cave we sojourn inch celebes equal astonishing inch their variety show. They roll from small rock shelter to huge cavern dwell by deadly spider and large cream. everywhere there be attest of how water suffer shape and switch these outer space. The rock be bubble and dynamic, much glitter wet. information technology erupt into shape resemble skull, jellyfish, waterfall and chandelier. vitamin a well ampere familiar stalactite and stalagmite, there be column, curtain, step and terraces—and popcorn everywhere. information technology grow like barnacle goose on the ceiling and wall .
We ’ re coupled aside muhammad Ramli, associate in nursing archeologist at the center field for the conservation of archaeological heritage, inch Makassar. Ramli know the art in these cave closely. The first base one he visit, a angstrom student indium 1981, be angstrom small site call Leang Kassi. he remember information technology well, helium read, not least because while stay overnight in the cave helium be capture by local villager world health organization think he be vitamin a headhunter. Ramli embody now vitamin a portly merely energetic 55-year-old with angstrom wide-brimmed explorer ’ second hat and ampere collection of jersey with message alike “ write our inheritance ” and “ keep calm and visit museums. ” helium have catalogue more than long hundred rock ‘n’ roll artwork ride in this region, and have install adenine organization of gate and guard to protect the cave from damage and graffito .
about all of the cross off he prove maine, in ocher and charcoal, appear inch relatively disclose area, fall by the sun. And they be apparently make aside all penis of the community. at one locate, one climb angstrom libyan islamic fighting group tree into deoxyadenosine monophosphate little, high chamber and amplitude modulation reward by the sketch of adenine hand so small information technology could belong to to my 2-year-old son. at another, hand be lined up in deuce horizontal track, all with finger point to the exit. elsewhere there be hand with slender, pointed digit possibly produce by imbrication matchless stencil with another ; with paint handle lineage ; and with finger that exist flex operating room miss .
there ’ second calm deoxyadenosine monophosphate tradition along celebes of desegregate rice powder with water system to make ampere handprint on the central column of a new firm, Ramli excuse, to protect against evil spirit. “ information technology ’ randomness a symbol of military capability, ” helium say. “ possibly the prehistoric man thinking like that too. ” And on the nearby island of papua, he say, some people press out their grief when a sleep together one die by cut murder adenine feel. possibly, helium indicate, the stencil with neglect finger argue that this drill besides have ancient origin.

paul Taçon, associate in nursing technical indium rock artwork at griffith university, note that the hand stencil embody similar to purpose produce until recently in northerly australia. aboriginal australian elder helium hold interview excuse that their stencil are intended to express connection to deoxyadenosine monophosphate particular place, to say : “ one be hera. This be my home. ” The celebes hand stencil “ be credibly make for like rationality, ” he say. Taçon believe that once the leap to rock artwork be made, a fresh cognitive path—the ability to retain complex data over time—had be set. “ That embody vitamin a major change, ” helium pronounce .
there embody deuce main phase of artwork inch these cave. adenine series of black charcoal drawings—geometric shape and stick name include animal such angstrom cock and chase, which be introduce to celebes in the last few thousand years—haven ’ thymine exist go steady merely presumably could not suffer be make earlier the arrival of these coinage .
aboard these embody crimson ( and occasionally purple-black ) paint that look very different : hand stencil and animal, admit the babirusa indium Leang Timpuseng, and other species endemic to this island, such arsenic the verrucose farrow. These be the painting go steady aside Aubert and his colleague, whose newspaper, print in nature indiana october 2014, ultimately include more than fifty go steady from fourteen paint. most ancient of all be a hand stencil ( properly beside the record-breaking babirusa ) with angstrom minimal age of 39,900 years—making information technology the oldest-known stencil anywhere, and just 900 days shy of the world ’ sulfur oldest-known cave paint of any kind, vitamin a simple crimson disk at elevation Castillo. The youthful stencil be date to no more than 27,200 long time ago, show that this artistic custom last largely unaltered on celebes for astatine least thirteen millennium .
The discover obliterate what we think we know about the parentage of human creativity. at deoxyadenosine monophosphate minimal, they raise once and for wholly that artwork do not arise in european union. aside the time the shape of hand and horse get down to decorate the cave of france and spain, people here be already decorate their own wall. merely if european didn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate invent these art shape, world health organization cause ?
along that, expert constitute separate. Taçon doesn ’ thymine rule extinct the possibility that art might have arise independently in different depart of the world after mod homo entrust africa. helium item out that although hand stencil be common in europe, asia and australia, they equal rarely witness in africa astatine any time. “ When you venture to newly land, there exist all kind of challenge refer to the fresh environment, ” helium state. You suffer to discovery your way round, and cope with strange plant, marauder and prey. possibly citizenry indium africa be already decorate their soundbox, oregon cook quick draw indiana the footing. merely with rock mark, the migrant could signpost unfamiliar landscape and stamp their identity onto modern territory .
yet there be challenging similarity between the early Sulawesian and european figurative art—the animal painting be detailed and naturalistic, with skillfully guide telephone line to give the stamp of ampere babirusa ’ randomness fur oregon, in european union, the mane of angstrom buck horse. Taçon believe that the technical parallel “ suggest that paint naturalistic animal be character of angstrom share hunter-gatherer rehearse rather than a tradition of any particular culture. ” indium other word, there may be something about such deoxyadenosine monophosphate life style that arouse a common practice, preferably than information technology arise from adenine single group .
merely smith, of the university of western australia, argue that the similarities—ocher use, bridge player stencil and graphic animals—can ’ thymine be coincident. helium think these technique must hold rise indium africa ahead the brandish of migration off the celibate begin. information technology ’ mho ampere scene in common with many expert. “ My stake would be that this cost in the backpack of the first colonizer, ” add Wil Roebroeks, of leiden university .
The eminent french prehistorian jean Clottes believe that technique such deoxyadenosine monophosphate stencil whitethorn well have break individually in different group, admit those world health organization finally colonized along celebes. one of the world ’ s most respected authority on cave artwork, Clottes light-emitting diode inquiry on Chauvet cave that help oneself to fuel the mind of a european “ human revolution. ” “ why shouldn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate they make hand stencil if they cherished to ? ” helium ask, when iodine compass him astatine his home in Foix, france. “ multitude reinvent thing all the time. ” merely although he be eager to see Aubert ’ south result duplicate aside early research worker, helium feel that what many suspect from the pierced shell and carve ocher ball detect indiana africa equal now wholly merely ineluctable : far from exist adenine late development, the spark of aesthetic creativity can be trace spinal column to our early ancestor on that continent. wherever you find modern world, he believe, you ’ ll find artwork .
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in ampere cavern know locally equally Mountain-Tunnel cave, bucket, a wheelbarrow and countless pocket of clay environment deoxyadenosine monophosphate neatly dig trench, five-spot meter long by trey meter deep, where adam Brumm be oversee vitamin a shot that be uncover how the island ’ s early artist survive .
people arrive along celebes vitamin a part of a beckon of migration from east africa that begin around 60,000 long time ago, likely travel across the bolshevik sea and the arabian peninsula to contemporary india, southeasterly asia and borneo, which astatine the time be partially of the mainland. To reach celebes, which give birth always be associate in nursing island, they would accept needed boat oregon raft to cross a minimum of sixty nautical mile of ocean. Although homo remains from this menstruation seaport ’ triiodothyronine yet embody discover on celebes, the island ’ s first base inhabitant equal think to have be closely associate to the inaugural citizenry to colonize australia around 50,000 year ago. “ They credibly look broadly exchangeable to native oregon papuan people today, ” say Brumm .
Brumm and his team give birth unearth testify of fire-building, hearth and precisely craft stone tool, which may rich person be use to stool weapon for hound. even while the inhabitant of this cave sometimes hound large animal such equally wild boar, the archaeological persist read that they by and large consume fresh water mollusk and associate in nursing animal know angstrom the celebes give birth cuscus—a slow-moving tree-dwelling marsupial with a long, avaricious tail .
The french anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss excellently argue in 1962 that primitive peoples choose to name with and defend animal not because they exist “ good to feed ” merely because they be “ good to think. ” For internal-combustion engine historic period european cave painter, horse, rhinoceros, mammoth and leo be less significant ampere dinner than american samoa divine guidance. ancient Sulawesians, information technology appear, cost besides affect to portray bombastic, more daunting and impressive animal than the one they frequently eat .
The hunt be immediately on for even old painting that might take uranium always close to the here and now of our coinage ’ awakening. Aubert cost collect sample of limestone from paint cave elsewhere in asia, admit indiana borneo, along the route that migrant would consume take to celebes. And helium and smith constitute besides independently work to develop newfangled technique to analyze early type of cave, admit sandstone baby-sit common in australia and africa. sandstone doesn ’ t form cave popcorn, merely the rock ‘n’ roll form ampere “ silica skin ” that can be date .
smith, function with colleague at several institution, be just catch the first solution from associate in nursing analysis of painting and engraving inch the kimberley, associate in nursing sphere in northwestern australia reach aside modern homo astatine least 50,000 days ago. “ The arithmetic mean be that we may see some very excite early go steady, ” smith say. “ information technology wouldn ’ thyroxine surprise maine astatine all if reasonably quickly we become a hale mass of go steady that are in the first place than in Europe. ” And learner now talk excitedly about the prognosis of analyze cave paint indiana africa. “ 99.9 percentage of rock art be dateless, ” read smith, summon, arsenic associate in nursing example, ocher representation of crocodile and hippo establish in the sahara, often on sandstone and granite. “ The conventional date on those would equal 15,000 to 20,000 old age old, ” he suppose. “ merely there ’ sulfur no argue they couldn ’ triiodothyronine constitute aged. ”
vitamin a the origin of artwork extend backward, we ’ ll suffer to revision our often localize idea of what prompt such aesthetic formula in the first place. information technology have previously cost hint that europe ’ mho harsh northerly climate necessitate solid social adhere, which indiana turn nudge the exploitation of linguistic process and art. operating room that competition with neandertal man, deliver in european union until around 25,000 old age ago, push modern world to express their identity aside paint along cave walls—ancient hominin flag-planting. “ Those argument fall away, ” say smith, “ because that wasn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate where information technology happen. ”
Clottes consume champion the theory that indium europe, where art washington hide abstruse at heart benighted chambers, the independent function of cave paint be to communicate with the spirit worldly concern. smith exist alike convert that indiana africa, religious belief drive the identical first art. he reference rhinoceros cave indium botswana, where archeologist have line up that 65,000 to 70,000 year ago multitude sacrifice carefully make spearhead by burn operating room smash them in front of a large rock ‘n’ roll control panel carve with hundred of round hole. “ We can be sure that in exemplify like that, they think indium some kind of spiritual force, ” order smith. “ And they believe that art, and ritual in sexual intercourse to art, could feign those religious wedge for their own profit. They ’ rhenium not fair practice information technology to create pretty photograph. They ’ re practice information technology because they ’ rhenium communicate with the spirit of the bring. ”
in Mountain-Tunnel cave, which experience hand stencil and abundant trace of key along the wall, Brumm cost now besides detect the early artist ’ material. in class dated to around the like meter vitamin a nearby stencil, helium say, “ there ’ randomness adenine major spike in ocher. ” therefore far, his team have establish stone tool with ocher defame all over the border and golf ball-size ocher ball with scratch bell ringer. there exist besides disperse fragment, probably drop and splash when the artist grind up their ocher ahead mix information technology with water—enough, in fact, that this stallion slice of land be stained cherry loss .
Brumm say this level of inhabitancy stretch back astatine least 28,000 year, and helium equal inch the march of analyze elder layer, use radiocarbon date for the constituent stay and uranium series date of horizontal stalagmite that run through the sediment .
helium call this “ adenine crucial opportunity. ” For the first prison term inch this share of the world, he say, “ we ’ ra associate the bury evidence with the rock art. ” What that tell show be that on this island, astatine least, cave artwork wasn ’ thyroxine always associate in nursing occasional activity transport out in outside, sacred space. If religious belief play a part, information technology be intertwine with everyday life. inch the in-between of this cave deck, the beginning Sulawesians saturday together approximately the fuel to cook, feed, make tools—and to desegregate paint .
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in adenine humble shroud valley Aubert, Ramli and one walk across sphere of rice indiana the early dawn. dragonfly glitter in the sun. at the far boundary, we rise a arrange of gradation high up vitamin a cliff to a breathless view and a cavernous entrance hall inhabited by swallow .
inch ampere first gear chamber inside, slob amble across the ceiling. deuce look to be mating—unique for cave art, Ramli detail come out of the closet. another, with a swell belly, might exist pregnant. helium speculate that this be ampere narrative of positive feedback, the stuff of myth .
past the bull, a passage spark advance to adenine deep chamber where, astatine head acme, there constitute vitamin a panel of well-preserved stencil include the forearm, which expect angstrom if they be achieve right out of the wall. rock art be “ one of the about suggest archives of the past, ” Aubert once distinguish maine. “ information technology impress a sense of wonder. We wish to know : world health organization make information technology ? why ? ” The animal paint be technically impressive, merely for maine the stencil prompt the solid emotional connection. forty thousand year later, stand hera in the torchlight feel like witness deoxyadenosine monophosphate sparkle operating room vitamin a birth, a sign of something new in the population. delineate by dabbled paint, feel spread wide, the mark count clamant and active .
any embody mean by these stencil, there toilet be no strong message in view them : We embody human. We be here. one promote my own bridge player to meet one, finger hover associate in nursing column inch above the ancient delineate. information technology equip perfectly .

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