Cultures throughout the world have stories of great floods and other natural disasters that shook their societies and ultimately resulted in a dramatic shift in how they functioned and developed. However, finding evidence for these stories is challenging and requires sifting through thousands of years of geological records in hopes of discovering signs of those events.
In a study published in the journal Science, researchers in China have found evidence that backs up one such story and gives strength to the story of how one of the most powerful empires in the world came to exist.
According to a Chinese legend passed down for a millennium, Emperor Yu tamed a great flood and established the Xia dynasty, effectively marking the beginning of Chinese civilization. Yu was said to have used dredging methods to divert the waters of the Yellow River after 22 years of devastating flooding.
A team of researchers, led by Dr. Qinglong Wu of Peking University and Nanjing Normal University, reconstructed the history of the Yellow River and found evidence for a landslide that created a dam which then burst after water had built up. This sudden surge of water is believed to be the basis for the Great Flood and the team used radiocarbon dating techniques on samples collected downstream to date the flood to 1920 BC.
The exact location of the dam that burst is believed to be the Jishi Gorge, and understanding these findings have allowed scientists to propose a new beginning date of 1900 BC for the Xia dynasty, several centuries than previously thought.
“This date coincides with the major transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age in the Yellow River valley and supports hypotheses that the primary state-level society of the Erlitou culture is an archaeological manifestation of the Xia dynasty,” the researchers said.
Combining these results demonstrates how the intersection of major natural and societal events instigated a cultural shift in connecting the people groups who lived along the Yellow River and forming the first dynasty of China.
Top photo by DaiLuo, CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.