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China’s mythical ‘Great Flood’ possibly rooted in real disaster


Ancient Chinese tales and writings about a massive flood of the Yellow River that led to civilization’s rise in East Asia appear to hold water, researchers say.

A section of the Yellow River dammed by an earthquake-caused landslide broke open about 3,936 years ago, says a team led by geologist Qinglong Wu of China’s Nanjing Normal University. A wall of water about one-third as high as the Empire State Building charged down the Yellow River valley, possibly changing the river’s course and leading to years of flooding in lowland areas inhabited by farmers, the scientists report in the Aug. 5 Science.

“This was one of the largest known floods on Earth over the past 10,000 years,” geologist and study coauthor Darryl Granger of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., said at a news conference.

That natural disaster came to be known as the Great Flood, first in Chinese folktales and later in written histories from around 3,000 years ago, the researchers propose. These accounts tell of a hero named Yu who spent decades leading efforts to dredge rivers and drain floodwaters, as well as personally fighting off supernatural beasts, following catastrophic flooding of the Yellow River. Legend has it that Yu’s success enabled him to launch Chinese civilization by founding the Xia dynasty.

Some scholars regard this tale as a myth or as propaganda devised to justify centralized, imperial rule.

Historical records of the Xia dynasty are scanty, archaeologist and study coauthor David Cohen of National Taiwan University in Taipei said at the news conference. New evidence of an ancient Yellow River flood “provides a tantalizing hint that the Xia dynasty actually existed,” Cohen said.

Wu’s team studied remains of a landslide dam along the Yellow River in north central China. Remnants of the dam, found on the left and right riverbanks, included masses of soil and shattered rock typical of landslides. A scar in the earth above the right bank must have been created by the landslide, the researchers say. The ancient dam backed up a lake that was about 200 meters deep, they estimate…

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