Ancient Chinese sources, like Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian written in around 2nd century BC, mentions China’s first ‘proper’ dynasty, the Xia – which was apparently founded circa 2100 BC. Now from the historical perspective, the Xia dynasty rather has a semi-legendary status – especially with anecdotes and tales that talk about how one of its emperors, Yu the Great, mitigated a destructive great flood in the Yellow River basin by dredging massive canals. But in a twist to the famous myth, geologists seemed to have found actual evidence relating to how there was an ancient flood of possibly catastrophic proportions. According to the researchers (with one team hailing from Beijing’s Peking University), an earthquake in 1920 BC caused the Yellow River to burst its banks, thus (possibly) causing one of the massive freshwater floods in human history.
Now as for the scope of the evidence, the researchers were initially drawn to a particular sediment specimen found in the Jishi Gorge of the Yellow River. The analysis of the sediment revealed a date that matched with the aforementioned period, while comparative assessment of children remains who were killed by an earthquake in the proximate site of Lajia established a time-frame of the catastrophic events that (might have) unfolded due to the triggering effects of the earthquake.
The researchers have hypothesized that the earthquake responsible for killing the children also caused a massive landslide that dammed the Yellow River. This accidental blockage pressurized the built-up water level to rise, and it ultimately spilled over the natural dam to collapse the entire section. As a result, a tremendous force of water with its bulking volume flowed downriver to flood the lowlands. When translated to figures (in accordance to modelling projections), the water could have risen to a baleful level of 124 ft above normal threshold, instigated by flood rates of a whopping 500,000 cubic m (or 132 million gallons) per second.
Simply put, as per geological records, this catastrophic event might have been the largest known flood in history in the last 10,000 years. Now from the mythical perspective, the sheer scale of the ‘raging’ water levels was mitigated by superb engineering feats initiated by Yu the Great that entailed dredging and channeling the flooded river bodies. And the Xia monarch was apparently aided by fantastical beasts like dragons and a giant turtle.
As for the historical flavor relating to these tales, many scholars have pointed out how the Erlitou culture, an early Bronze Age urban society based in the Yellow River valley, were the original representatives of the Xia dynasty. But solid evidence of such a cultural connection, especially pertaining to written material, still remains scarce.
However the mention of massive floods in ancient tales and myths do follow a certain narrative path that is partially recognizable (though the mythic flood mentioned in Sumerian records predates the aforementioned Chinese one by several centuries). As geologist David Montgomery from the University of Washington, put forth the question-
Great floods occupy a central place in some of the world’s oldest stories. Emperor Yu’s flood now stands as another such story potentially rooted in geologic events. … How many other ancient stories of intriguing disasters might just have more than a grain of truth to them?
Suffice it to say, the results of the study still need to be verified and confirmed. But in any case, further research on the subject might just reveal tantalizing details that could finally shed light into China’s legendary First Dynasty and their accomplishments.
The study and its related findings were originally published in the Science journal.