According to legend, the history of China began with heavy flooding along the Yellow River. A man named Gun helped control the floods temporarily by building dikes, but it wasn’t until his son Yu took over the project and taught the locals to dredge the river and channel the water that the problem was finally fixed. Yu’s innovations ushered the expansion of agriculture and the beginning of the Chinese civilization, which he led as the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty. There is no historical evidence of Yu’s reign and the fact that a yellow dragon and black turtle supposedly helped him dig the channels has placed the story squarely in the realm of myth.
As for the giant flood, however, researchers in China recently revealed that they’ve found evidence of a cataclysmic event along the Yellow River around 1200 B.C. According to a press release, study leader Qinglong Wu of Peking University in Beijing led a team of archaeologists and geologists to reconstruct a series of events along the Yellow River in Qinghai Province. What they found is that a landslide dammed the river, eventually flooding the area downstream. Mapping the sediments, they were able to determine that the flood was truly massive. Their study appears in the journal Science.
Co-author Darryl Granger of Purdue University said in a conference call that the floodwaters topped out at almost 125 feet above the current river level. That is a cataclysm “roughly equivalent to the largest Amazon flood ever measured,” he says, and 500 times larger than any flood caused by heavy rains on the Yellow River.
The researchers believe that an earthquake in the area caused the landslide that obstructed the river in the Jishi Gorge, reports Nicholas Wade at The New York Times. According to Michael Greshko at National Geographic, Wu found the remnants of the dam in the Gorge that were half a mile wide, three-quarters of a mile long, and 660 feet tall. “That’s as big as the Hoover Dam or the Three Gorges Dam,” Granger tells Greshko. “Imagine a dam like that failing.”
Six to nine months later, that temporary dam did break, releasing 3.8 cubic miles of water that surged downstream for 1,250 miles causing major floods all the way and even redirecting the river’s course, Wade writes.
Researchers were able to date the earthquake and the flood by testing the remains of three children found 16 miles downstream in the village of Lajia, which was devastated by the earthquake then washed over when the dam broke.
The dates line up with what little scholars know about Emperor Yu. “If the great flood really happened, then perhaps it is also likely that the Xia dynasty really existed too. The two are directly tied to each other,” study co-author David Cohen of National Taiwan University tells Greshko.
However, critics are skeptical that the Great Flood and Emperor Yu are based on historical fact, Wade reports. After all, many creation myths are based on the idea of the world or civilizations emerging from receding floodwaters. Instead, they argue that the Yu story is probably a conflation of several myths about floods.
“These are relatively late legends that were propagated for philosophical and political reasons,” Paul Goldin, a China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania tells Wade, “and it’s inherently questionable to suppose that they represent some dim memory of the past.”