A new geological study has unearthed evidence that the Great Flood of Chinese myth may not be a myth after all. An international team of researchers discovered traces of a dam break that correlates with the timing of the legendary flood, which is told as the dawn of China’s powerful Xia dynasty. The evidence suggests that the actual flood may have happened several hundred years later than the myth says, which translates into a significant difference in how Chinese history is understood.
The flood myth varies a bit depending on who is telling it, but the general storyline is that a massive flood occurred and Emperor Yu (who was not yet the Emperor) fended it off with a decades-long project involving dredging flooded rivers with the aid of a dragon and a mud-hauling turtle. According to the myth, the accomplishment lead directly to the foundation of the Xia dynasty, which ruled China for 400 years. Scholars have long quibbled about whether the flood actually occurred, and nobody has had definitive evidence until now.
Discovering geological evidence of the Great Flood was, like many scientific revelations, something that happened by accident. In a press conference on Thursday, lead author Wu Qinglong of Peking University in Beijing described how researchers observed unusual sediment in the Jishi Gorge of the Yellow River, which inspired Wu to theorize a link to the Great Flood. Purdue University geologist and study co-author Darryl Granger was able to map and date the odd sediment and, when combined with evidence the team obtained from skeletons of earthquake victims unearthed in nearby Lajiia, it became apparent that the quake caused an enormous landslide dam break. A radiocarbon analysis of the skeletal remains revealed the disaster occurred around 1922 BCE.
The magnitude of this flood, according to all evidence so far, suggests it could be “the” Great Flood of Chinese legend, although the timeline is hundreds of years earlier than the story says. Interestingly, the new timeline parallels a major cultural transition, as the Early Bronze Age emerges following the late Neolithic Era. Study co-author David Cohen, an archaeologist at National Taiwan University is quick to point out that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the flood and the cultural shift, however.
The research study was recent published in the journal Science.
Images via Cai Linhai of the Qinghai Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Black Rainbow and Wu Qinlong