UI-RA-LA: The Ancient World of Boat Peoples, by Andres PÄÄbo




image of Venetic vase Pa16-MP77 in LLV of  La Lingua Venetica by Pellegrini & Prosdocimi

A very attractive, professionally made and decorated vase included the band of writing as part of its design. The purpose of the band of writing to appeal to a general market is revealed when we manage to translate the inscription as a plain appropriate sentence - 'water the bunch vigorously'

by A. Pääbo

Human nature today is not changed very much if at all in the past thousands of years, and that is why archeology is finding many of the same common everyday institutions we find today. Focussing our attention on the Italic Peninsula before the rise of Rome, we can find archeological objects that appear to have been deliberately crafted to sell to consumers visiting markets. The best evidence that they were consumer objects is seen in the same object being made over and over - archeology finding almost identical objects in two or more copies. But what is most interesting is the addition of short pieces of writing, which when translated have simple appealing universal sayings. Here are a few convincing examples of products and texts designed to appear to the public from among ancient Venetic and even Etruscan  objects,  written in the non-Indo-European languages in the Italic Peninsula before the arrival of Greek-inspired Indo-Euopean language. 

Before the Roman era, there were  peoples and languages in the Italic Peninsula who were inspired by a new development - writing. Phonetic writing probably developed among long distant trader peoples, who needed writing that actually reproduced the sound of a language so that they could create phrasebooks in the languages of their customers. This practice is especially well-known for the Phoenicians. A by-product of the development of phonetic writing is that it could be put on everyday objects to in effect make them speak. Originally it would have been as fascinating as in recent history recorded voices being added to toys.

The long distance traders from the north, who ancient Greeks saw as 'barbarians' (literally meaning people who spoke an unintelligible language), were probably speakers of a Finnic language, since long distance trade was by coasts and rivers, and the northern boat-using hunter-gatherers were preadapted to take on the role in a Europe consisting of settled people in interiors who would not even have known how to build proper boats.  This truth suggests that major southern terminals of north-south trade - especially amber trade for which the Veneti were known - spoke a Finnic-like language, even if the larger world around their southern terminus colonies spoke an Indo-European language like Greek, Illyrian-Slavic, or early Latin.

This common sense notion motivated me to try to interpret some short inscriptions on common everyday goods found in the Italic Peninsula from before the expansion of Rome. Having been raised from a child in the Estonian language, I tried to listen to the writing with the intuition of someone with Estonian as a child, to see if I could detect a sentence that was supported by the object.  The linguistic principle for doing so it the fact that there exists in every modern language, a core common language that is passed from generation to generation to children, without change. The most common language tends to have a greater inertia than specialized language where the words are not used often and easily displaced and changed.

The ancient Etruscans were fond of creating highly marketable objects for the general consumer - hand mirrors, ale tankards, etc. Not all have the novelty of writing, but the ones that do can reveal some surprises.  Of particular interest are hand-mirrors with writing on the back.  Archeology has found some with elaborate illustrations of scenes from mythology. The names of the deities are clearly identifiable. However, the problem with trying to interpret those, is that it is necessary to know the mythological situation depicted in order to confirm any hypothesis about the language. I needed to find a sentence where the sentence was related to the nature or use of a hand-mirror. How suitable would the translation be for the object, for a hand-mirror. How appropriate would the sentence be, and an appealing feature at a marketplace?


I discovered generally that the Etruscan language was too diverged from even simple Estonian for any result to be convincing. However there was one inscription on the back of a mirror that employed a few of the most common words in Estonian such as näe! 'see!'. That word could very well be many thousands of years old and widely used in pre-Indo-European trader Europe.

The Etruscan sentence on the back of the elegant hand-mirror, converted to Roman alphabet reads:


Making a connection between viewing yourself in a mirror and seeing oneself, I immediately saw the Estonian näe! look,  stem näge-  'look, see, show'  and also naer 'laugh, smile' and divided up the continuous text as follows


This resonates to the Estonian intuition as an extreme dialect saying what in today's Estonian, with some valid dialectic liberties. For example miskit is a valid alternative to mida, and näeva is a present participle whereas today we would use the infinitive näha 'to see' 

 Miskit näeva? Näevas naeru 
The closest literal translation into English: "Whatsit to be seeing? (In process of) seeing a smile"

Which is totally appropriate for a hand mirror! In modern Estonian idiom one would express the idea more like Mida näed? Näed naeru. 'what do you see? You see a smile' or Mida näha? Näha naeru. 'what is  to see? To see a smile'

But as I say, Etruscan is very old, going back 3000 years or more, and it would have deviated considerable from any language common also to the roots of Estonian. I did not pursue Etruscan objects more, even if I could give a couple examples of inscriptions on tankards-. Other inscriptions would not be as obvlously suitable for the object like the above- All we have to support our hypothesis is the nature of the object.

The ancient Veneti of northern Italy developed at the south end of the amber trade route that came south from the Elbe, and descended the Adige. The amber trade made intimate connections between the Baltic sources of amber and the Mediterranean. Greece was one of the major destinations. Since the amber sources were at the Baltic, and the largest source of amber was at the southeast Baltic, it seemed that we might find an even greater resonance between common Estonian and the Venetic objects. Although the number of Venetic inscriptions dating mostly to the centuries before the rise of Rome, is not great (less than 100 complete sentences and less than 300 fragments) almost all the inscriptions were very short sentences on object whose character and purpose are understood and would serve both as a guide and proof for the interpretations. Most of the Venetic objects are those found at ancient sanctuaries or cemetaries, so the bulk of the writing are on cremation urns, tomb markers, and items dedicated to the goddess Rhea; so actual consumer oriented items we can dissect are not great. The following are a few very convincing examples.


The image above, shows a very elegantly designed vase. Unlike another vase and other objects that appear to be custom inscribed with a prayer to a diety, etc. and the inscription is obviously added after the object was made, this vase, like other objects that appear to have been made repeatedly for the marketplace, incorporates the text into the design. As we see in the image, the text goes around the neck of the vase within a band.  The image is not in colour, but we can imagine it was attractively covered.  klutiiari.s.

Archeologists have determined this was a vase, and so I set out to see if the text was as suitably designed as the rest of the vase. We are looking for a universal sentence, and not the typical prayer or memorial normally inscribed on the common funerary or memorial objects. The Padova area, where the vase was found was a major market city in Venetic times.

The sentence going around the neck, when converted from the Venetic alphabet to the Roman alphabet was


Ancient texts were intended to purely mimic actual speech, and so the reader had to know the language enough to place the emphasis and intonations in the right places. Venetic writing added dots as additional phonetic markers where the sound departed from the normal pure sound, such as palatalization. But ultimately the solution was to add spaces or dots to identify words. It was begun by Etruscans and copied in Latin.  Here, because today we have rationalized languages in terms of a sequence of words with grammatical endings, it is useful in the analysis to break up the Venetic continuous writing into words. This of course has to be done correctly of course, as there are potentially many ways to divide a continuous row of letters. 

In this case we could see that voto was a separate word from its appearance in other inscriptions. That left klutiiari.s.vha.g.s.to  Another indication of a word boundary is grammatical endings seen repeatedly in the inscriptions. In this case there is the first .s.  We can then reliably divide the sentence as follows:

voto   klutiiari.s.  vha.g.s.to

The is in other inscriptions some evidence that voto is connected to 'water' the liquid. Without an ending, it follows the pattern of the imperative form.  Next, the third word vha.g.s.to sounds remarkably like Estonian väga 'very' and even more closely vägevasti 'strongly, energetically'  Since these words are very common, probably used a dozen times a day, they probably have the required inertia to have survived with little change since the time of the Venetic inscriptions. (Our linguistic methodology is to ensure decisions are made from words in daily use, which will have been passed down generation after generation.)

So if vha.g.s.to is interpreted with vägevasti then with voto being 'water' the word    seems to refer to the contents of the wase as in 'water [the contents of the vase] strongly'. This would not be a common word, and therefore would not have the same inertia. Nonetheless Estonian has the word klutt to describe a tuft of hair or something.  Furthermore there is in Estonian hari, meaning 'arrange, brush'  so that klutiiari.s. sounds like it means 'arranged bunch' or 'cultivated bunch'.  In English there is the word 'clutch (of flowers)'.  Regardless of the actual origins and evolution of the word, it becomes clear from voto ----vha.g.s.to that  klutiiari.s. describes the flower arrangement in the vase. It makes complete sense that a very universal message on a vase would be 'water the flower arrangement well'.

This result is exactly what you would expect on a marketed object where the text is incorporated into the design and therefore it would not be surprising if archeology might find more of the same design. A good design is repeated over and over.


Another example, where the object apparently was found in identical form three times, comes from the Piave River valley, which was the major trade route from the north, after Rome became a major destination for merchants.  There were two major routes that came down to the north end of the Adriatic - one came down the Adige, and the other one came down the other routes from the Baltic, originating from the southeast Baltic.  Merchants/traders coming down from the southeast Baltic would have spoken the dialect there that would have been closer to today's Estonian. This analysis has no effect on the analysis, but explains why the following inscription was easier to interpret via Estonian and Finnish language intuition. The merchants the writing was for may actually have been speaking ancient Estonian as it was in the first century of the Roman Age. These inscriptions, written on ale tankards, may have been deliberately inscribed to be readable by these merchants from the north, stopping at a tavern along the route, who were not familiar with Latin. This is a believable deduction because in this case the text is actually written in the Roman alphabet, even though the language is Venetic, or at least an Estonian dialect of Venetic. (The traders were actually called Venedi a word that originates from Venede 'people of the boats')

This is one of the very few inscriptions written in the Roman alphabet during the Romanization period, that is in a proper Venetic language.  After the Romanization  there were still outlying areas where Venetic was the primary language.

The Roman alphabet form eliminated the Venetic phonetic dots markers, and shows word boundaries with dots. The fact that Venetic could be written in the Roman fashion proves that the Venetic dots are not necessary when word boundaries are used. We can understand this if we write this text withoutanyspaces. The Venetic alphabet approach would be analogous to adding marks to suiggest how the actual speech is broken up as in using an apostrophe as in  with'out'a'ny'spa'ces for example. (Venetic dots were more sophisticated, in putting dots around letters that were in one way of another palatalized, including "sh" repesented by .s. or a trilled r with .r.  But here we need not be concerned about the character of  Venetic writing, because here we have a very long sentence written in a proper Roman fashion.

image of tankard

This incription, is shown in the illustration above, as drawn by its finder, showing on paper the object, its handle, and the manner in which the text was written onto the object.

 The inscription reads (dividing the sentence at the dots)

It was engraved on a container found at  Canevoi di Cadola, a village  on the Upper Piave River . The object has been lost, but the drawing and information  was preserved by canon Lucio Doglioni from Belluno, the author of several studies of Belluno inscriptions. Etruscanologist Elia Lattes was first to publish the drawing of the bucket and the inscription.

This container  was 30 cm long with a 15 cm handle, made of lead,  concave sides, with a handle.  The finder wrote that he had seen two other identical ones – which suggests it was part of quite a number of identical ones, which is why I propose it was part of a set of ale tankards in a tavern.

Besides the believability of a set of tankards at a tavern along the Piave valley trade route, there are other indications it was an ale tankard. The size 30cm long, and it looks like maybe 15cm across, is too small for a bucket. Furthermore, there is no indication of any bucket-type handle being connected from the top.  The illustration shows the separated handle with points on the end. This suggests that the container portion had two holes drilled into it, and the points were pushed into  holes on the sides. The size of the handle - 15cm - is about right for a man's hand.

But the real evidence that this was an ale tankard among a set of such tankards used at a tavern will come from translating the sentence.

The regular academic interpretation of this inscription by the traditional scholarly studies of Venetic as an archaic Indo-European language, could only get a translation by making most of the words into proper names – a trick common to traditional analysis. For example a translation given by Micheal Lejeune in Manuel de la Langue Venetique was  ‘Burial vault of Ennonios for (his brothers) Onts (and) Applios (and for) himself, (all three) sons of Andetios’. Although not absurd, it is completely empty and not only makes parts into meaningless proper names, but assumes ideas in the brackets.. This act of regarding pieces as meaningless proper names is unacceptable since we know ancient names had meanings themselves (as we still see in modern names surviving from ancient origins). Another interpretation of the Canevoi bucket using Slovenian was done by Matej Bor, completely ignoring the word boundaries, and is equally absurd ‘And now, drunken as you are, have fear, have fear even of children around you, when you travel.’ And of course, it was necessary to add a paragraph of explanation of children being malicious to drunks, etc. While anything is possible, it would be highly unlikely to appear on such an object.

There were three trader routes identified from dropped/lost amber - south via the Elbe and by various rivers to the Innsbruck area and south on the Adige River, .down the Dneiper to the Black Sea area, and south on the Vistula transferring to the upper Oder and reaching the Vienna area and then south to the Adriatic from the east side.  The region of the Veneti were at the southern terminus of the two routes that came down to the Adriatic.  The route from the southeast Baltic beginning at the Vistula originally was keen to reach the great market for amber at ancient Greece; but with the rise of the Romans, some of the traders turned further west, and came down the Piave, in order to reach Roman markets.  (The name Piave, in Latin Piavis, sounds remarkably like Finnic pea vee, or pea viise, 'main waterway' or 'main river-route')  They are very common words and therefore would have been perpetuated through the last couple thousand years.

Scholars have never considered Finnic language, since the academic world has never considered that the Baltic peoples who handled amber, and were expert in boat travel, spawned professional traders and exploitation of southern interest in northern products like amber, furs, honey, and other exotic northern products.  Having already found some evidence of an Estonian-like language in the Venetic inscriptions, I tackled this sentence with my Estonian intuition (this is something one gains as a child from direct learning without the intellectual rationalization of adult language learning.)

The most valuable aspect of this inscription is that the word boundaries are defined, because traditionally analysts trying to find something Latin-like or Slavic-like in the inscriptions, simply tried to hear some words, and then divided the continuous text to suit what they thought they heard. It would be analogous to listening to a clock ticking and translate the sound into 'tick-tock'. The explicit identification of words makes it impossible for a false interpretation being created from convenient custom division to suit what the analyst thinks they hear.

We first note the word ECUPETARIS we see often tagged at the end of some sentences and which suggests a ‘happy journey’ concept.  In front of this word is OBOS, giving OBOSECUPETARIS.  If OBOS means 'horse' as suggested by Estonian hobus (a word that has Indo-European origins since horses were not originally found in the north), then we see a compound word meaning 'happy horse-journey'  In the memorials with pictures of horses there was an inscription in Venetic alphabet v.i.ug-iio.i.  .u. posed-iio.i.  .e.petari.s. in which .u. posed appears to mean ‘horses’. The singular would then be .u.pos, which looks much like the OBOS here. Such additional cross-references are important to help confirm choices.

We then notice ANDETIK We note that the word ANDET appears in other inscriptions and a very believable meaning everywhere is ‘successes’. Modern Estonian has the word andekas 'lucky, talented, successful'. This too is a commonly used word that has enough inertia to have lasted since the time of the Veneti.

This enables us to view the end portion ANDETIC OBOS ECUPETARIS end portion as ‘have a successful horse-journey'.

Working backwards through the sentence we next see SSELBOISSELBOI which is clear reduplication of SSELBOI.  Such repetition suggests a repeated action, or emphasis. If we are talking about a successful horse journey then we want to find a word that can be associated with horse-riding.
 It is here that the Estonian ear helps. Estonian uses reduplication in Selga, selga  ‘onto the back, onto the back’ as applied to a horse.. As already discussed earlier, the presence in Venetic of the suffix -bo- ‘side’ suggests BOI is a suffix or case ending that is based on -bo- and partitive (vowel)-I  giving the meaning ‘to the side of’. The Estonian selg ‘back’ appears to be an ancient word as it exists in Finnish as selkä. Thus we can propose that SSELBOI is formed from SSEL- stem meaning ‘back’ and -BOI which is not exactly the same as Estonian selga, selga but produces the same meaning. For those knowing Estonian it  would be analogous to selj-poole.

In this sentence the partitive ending (v)I occurs several times. It’s meaning is typical of the complex application of partitives in Finnic, and appears to have the meaning ‘to, towards’ as there is a sense of action in a direction.

Estonian has the word appi  as an Illative type of word meaning ‘to the aid’ which suits the previous word APPIOI except other evidence suggests it is actually in the infinitive 'to aid' rather than 'to the aid'.

ONTEI sounds like Estonian on teid  ‘is your’   The ending is here to be interpreted in the Partitive.
Thus we have so far the equivalent of the Estonian on teie appi ‘is to aid’

What is ‘(in)to your aid’? Since it is a container, and may involve a horse, how about water from the container to quench the horse’s thirst? But this is not believable. The object, as already mentioned, is probably an ale tankard.  Thus we have to find in the word ENONI, something connected to thirst and whatever is in the container.  With an Estonian ear, we immediately hear jänu 'thirst'. Finnish has preserved -ni ending as a possessive pronoun meaning 'my'; hence ENONI sounds like it means 'my thirst'

If these interpretations are incorrect, then when we put it all together, the result would sound absurd. But if correct, a sensible sentence will appear. The result using added information from Estonian would be in Estonian jänuni (my thirst) on teie appi (=teie abitsenud mind). (have you aided) Selga, selga. (selja-poole, seljapoole) (onto the back, onto the back) andelikkut hobus-reisi (have a successful  horse-journey)

‘My thirst you have aided. Ontotheback, ontotheback. Successful horse-journey-continuing!’

The most believable way of interpreting this, is that the drinker is thinking this, and directing it to the tankard of ale, now empty. You, ale, have helped me by quenching my thirst. Now it is time to continue on, to get on the back of the horse outside, and to continue on to a successful horse-journey. In addition to the sentence being believable (and can be shown to have grammatical closeness to Estonian grammar) the resulting sentence is perfectly suitable for an ale tankard in a tavern.  The sentence expresses what the drinker thinks after having downed the ale.

In addition there was the word on the handle of the bucket, where the first letter looks like it was a P, giving PIIS. It can be interpreted as ‘handle’ from  pidese >piise >piis.  What else could a single word on the handle mean, other than ‘handle’?  The handle with its pointed ends, I believe was attached by pushing it into holes in the side of the container.

This inscription also illustrates how important it is in our methodology to always select not just the interpretation that is possible, but the one that is most realistic, the one that most follows grammatical structure, and results in the most believable result.

For example, it is possible to come up with other interpretations  such as the absurd ones via Slovenian or Latin which the analysts can argue are ‘possible’.  But it is the interpretation that ‘works’ on all levels that is by the laws of probability and statistics, most probably correct. Strange interpretations always reveal themselves to have flaws on all levels.. For example interpreting SSELBOISSELBOI with Estonian sel poisil  sel poisil ‘of that boy, of that boy’ instead of selga, selga ‘onto the back, onto the back’ can produce a worse, even absurd, sentence..  We can tell that sel poisil is a worse interpretation than selga for a number of reasons. Sel poisil  breaks the SSELBOI word against suggested word boundaries, and it adds an additional -il at the end.. Thus in the direct approach the interpreter must be trying their best and always seeking the best fit and realistic results - closest to word boundaries, grammar, etc..  This applies to employing other languages too. We can take modern English for example. What can we get if we identify in the above inscription some vague English sentence? “Anon – on the – apply – sell boy sell boy – and ethic – oh boys – occupy taris”. If the analyst were fanatic like some analysts can be, he could probably poetically massage this result to get a meaning that, still absurd, formed a ‘poetic’ sentence, and then accompanied it with a long explanation. Furthermore,  it will be impossible to find the same meaning of the same Venetic words in other inscritpions, nor the same grammatical operation.

In a sentence – while it is possible for anyone to find a similar sounding sentence in any language, it will be like hearing sentences in the wind. A proper analysis of Venetic requires the full analysis of all the inscriptions at once, with constant cross-checking of any hypothesis. There is no shortcut. It is impossible to interpret Venetic in a piecemeal fashion. The entire body of known inscriptions must be analyzed at once and the results highly realistic and clear.

But our purpose here is to highlight examples of objects that appear to have been crafted over and over in order to serve a marketplace so that  the writing on them will have a common universal saying appropriate to the object and appearling to the customer who buys it.  These objects demonstrate that what we see today in manufacture and marketing, already existed two thousand years ago in the Italic Peninsula, in a languae other than the more common Latin or Greek.

How about an object used in ancient times to freshen the air inside a house?


Among the Venetic objects with inscriptions, there are two inscribed with the same words.


In this case they are not identical objects, and therefore were made by different craftsmen; however, these are objects that would have been crafted many times and intended to be sold at markets. Both of them are small containers and one can speculate what they were used for?The following illustration shows the more elegant-looking one. Let us interpret these objects from their appearance. What could they have been used for?

image of small container

 The one illustrated here has a handle that shows holes for thumb and forfinger. The bottom of the little pot is round, meaning it was not set down anywhere. It was carried around and then put away. What does this context suggest?  The first thing that comes to  mind is a portable oil lamp analogous to later candle holders – to carry around to find one’s way in the dark. But examples of such oil lamps in other cultures suggests it should have a flat bottom to set it down.

Another practice involving carrying something around would be to perfume an environment. A flat bottom is not necessary if, once the rooms are perfumed, the task is complete, and doesn’t need to be continued.

We all the while bear in mind the fact that the same words appear on another small pot, which tends to suggest the object was designed for general customers and the words were not custom-made and were most probably a label for the object or what was inside.

Thus from studying the context we can come up with some ideas of probable use, and from that propose some meanings. Our first next step would be to look through all other inscriptions to see if similar words appear. In this case we cannot find the words anywhere else other than the second pot. 

All we have determined so far is that the object was crafted, and the words describe the object (‘small pot?’) or what was inside (‘lamp oil’ or ‘perfume’)

We have, thus, a general expectation. We can continue to search evidence for more clues. As we discussed earlier, we can extend our accumulation of clues to external languages. But it is wise to do so only when we have already determined a rough meaning from direct interpretation. We have done so. We expect the meaning to be likely something connected with perfuming a home.

With that in mind, when we now look at external languages (Latin, Etruscan, Germanic, etc) we find that in Estonian we can mimic the Venetic with lõhnav roht ‘aromatic herbs’.

What is the probability of such closeness occurring by random chance onto two similar objects!?


As our final example, we will not describe an object that would have been manufactured over and over, since we have no idea if was. But this is worth looking at because it has, in tiny letters on the rim of a container, some text that appears to be blatant sales promotion.

image of rim of container

The container is in pieces, but what is interesting here is the tiny text incribed on the rim.  What could be the purpose of this tiny writing. Today if we see tiny text on a product, it will describe things like manufacturer, country of manufacture, etc. But at this early date industry and commerce were not so organized. We are speaking of centuries before the Roman Empire. There are many possibilities, form the crafter trying to be poetic, to recording some kind of news connected with the object.  It would seem to any archeologist that the object itself would provide no guidance in what is written in the tiny text.

However this is not entirely true.  The object was found in the Piave River valley, which means it was found along the ancient trade route from the north. (like the tankard discussed earlier).  The container, which seems to have been of elegant design, was not a utilitarian pail. This information does not narrow down the possibilities much, but it may be enought to tell us if our interpretation of the inscription can believably  be explained in this context.

The text, converted from the Venetic alphabet into small case Roman, reads as follows:


The inscription too does not provide much if anything that is repeated in other inscriptions. But in this case, if spoken out loud, it sounds like it is in a dialect of Estonian. To read it properly letters with dots around them represent palatalization - which is like adding a short "I" in front of  a consonant. or a "J" (pronounced like English "Y") or an "H" produced at the front of the mouth.  This means the first letters  .e..i.k. sounds much like a very common Estonian word ehk, generally meaning 'in case that'.

There are grammatical endings in the text, that help us find word boundaries.  At the end we see the endings -.a.i.  which appear to be in the partitive.  An .s. might indicate an inessive case, but this assumption doesnot work.  We have to simply take the plunge and produce an interpretation and then text it for grammar and meaning.

Long story short, I found a perfect parallel with Estonian  ehk  gulda, ni ostad õlu, terve kannu
The meaning is 'In case (you have) gold, then you buy ale, a whole container'.  There is absolutely no rational reason it is correct other than the circumstances of being along the trade route coming down the Piave and originating in the Baltic, but the Estonian version parallels the Venetic grammatically.

If we accept it is correct, then why is it written in tiny letters on a rim? The answer is simple, if it is an ale container, the drinkers will get very close to the rim and read it. In such a context, it could have been in a tavern serving containers of ale to travellers seated at tables. The tiny letters would then be an advertisement encouraging the purchasing of whole containers of ale.

Either it is an extraordinary coincidence, or it is correct.

F u r t h e r  S t u d i e s

 Author's Page at Academia.edu   or    Author's website page on Venetic

author of all content except where otherwise cited: : A.Paabo, Box 478, Apsley, Ont., Canada

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2017 (c) A. Pääbo.