The Legend of China’s Great Flood is Now Ancient History

August 5, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

ancient chinese floods
Photo credit: Cai Linhai

Geologists find clues along the Yellow River.

Legend has it that four millennia ago, China’s Yellow River basin flooded. Many tribes united in their efforts to control the chaotic outpour, but it was Emperor Yu who allegedly tamed the flood by dredging canals to coax the water back into their channels. Owing to his great success, Yu was tasked with establishing the Xia dynasty, which is believed to have marked the emergence of Chinese civilization.

But the paucity of written records of these events has led some scholars to question whether they occurred at all, and whether the Xia dynasty ever really existed.

Now, researchers report in the journal Science that they have found the first evidence of China’s Great Flood, which indicates that the disaster indeed occurred, though it was centuries later than originally thought.

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The research team set off along the Yellow River in Qinghai Province, where they found the remnants of an ancient dam made of rocks and dirt that had clogged up the river’s flow, possibly for months. After enough pressure built behind it, the dam eventually gave way, unleashing the disastrous flood.

Remains of three children who died when their home collapsed in an earthquake — the earthquake is believed to have triggered a landslide that led to the formation of the dam that caused the flood — were carbon dated, putting the flood at around 1920 BC.

The researchers write that this new timeline “would place the beginning of Xia at ~1900 BCE, several centuries later than traditionally thought.” This period coincides with the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in the Yellow River Valley. It was also during this time that the technologically advanced Erlitou culture — the first state-level society in China — emerged.

Some scholars hold that the Erlitou culture and the Xia dynasty were one and the same, an idea that is bolstered by the new dating of the flood.

With evidence of the flood uncovered, it becomes more likely that the legends of the Xia dynasty hold some historical truth, at least in the mind of study co-author David Cohen.

"If the Great Flood really happened, perhaps it is also likely that the Xia dynasty really existed, too,” he tells National Geographic. “The two are directly tied to each other.”

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