I downloaded the most recent 15GB of the Bitcoin blockchain. But I also have a back up from a year ago when I downloaded some more. Can I merely copy the old blockchain files into ~/.bitcoin and have bitcoin-qt recognize them automatically? I ask because I don't want to damage my current set of files.

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You can't merge them, but you can just copy the old blocks/ and chainstate/ subdirectories of an old install that you trust. It'll just continue where you left off then.

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