Yellow River sedimentary evidence dates the Great Flood of China, and the start of the Xia dynasty, at 1920 BCE

Sedimentary evidence from the Yellow River may have settled the chronological discrepancy between the historical and the archaeological chronology as to when Yu the Great introduced his ground-breaking (no pun intended) methods of flood control. For his accomplishments he was made King, and that in turn turned out to be the introduction of dynastic rule in China by starting what was to be the Xia dynasty which lasted just over 1,000 years.

WikipediaYu the Great (大禹 c. 2200 – 2100 BC) was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character.

The dates proposed for Yu’s reign precede the oldest known written records in China, …….. he does not appear in inscription until vessels dating to the Western Zhou period (c. 1045–771 BC). The lack of anything remotely close to contemporary documentary evidence has led to some controversy over the historicity of Yu. ……. Yu is one of the few Chinese rulers posthumously honored with the epithet “the Great”

The earliest historical records of Yu start only about 1,000 years after his death. It was thought that Yu lived around 2,200 BCE. A new paper in Science reports on studies of Yellow River sediments and suggest that the cause of the flood was a landslide, caused by an earthquake, that planted a massive natural dam across the Yellow River where it travels through the Jishi Gorge after emerging from the Tibetan plateau. The dam would have risen some 800 feet above the river’s present level. Using stratigraphic data and radiocarbon dating, Wu et al. verify that the flood occurred and place the start of the Xia dynasty at about 1900 BC, thus reconciling the historical and archaeological chronologies. They present evidence for an enormous landslide dam break 1922 ± 28 BCE  that coincided with the major cultural transition from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age in China and that also helps explain curious details of Yu’s story.

Qinglong Wu et al, Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty, Science,  05 Aug 2016. Vol. 353, Issue 6299, pp. 579-582, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0842

Jishi Gorge

Jishi Gorge

AbstractChina’s historiographical traditions tell of the successful control of a Great Flood leading to the establishment of the Xia dynasty and the beginning of civilization. However, the historicity of the flood and Xia remain controversial. Here, we reconstruct an earthquake-induced landslide dam outburst flood on the Yellow River about 1920 BCE that ranks as one of the largest freshwater floods of the Holocene and could account for the Great Flood. This would place the beginning of Xia at ~1900 BCE, several centuries later than traditionally 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 New York Times writes:

Ancient Chinese texts record a mix of historical events and legends. Some records, such as those relating to China’s second and third dynasties, were confirmed in surprising detail when archaeologists turned up inscriptions on oracle bones and ancient bronzes. …… 

But records of the first dynasty, that of the Xia, contain stories of a Great Flood with a Noah-like savior, the Emperor Yu, who gained the mandate of heaven after dredging canals to dispel the floodwaters and make the land safe. Historians have long wondered whether this flood account was a creation-style myth, the folk memory of a real event, or some mixture of the two. Some have dismissed the story of Emperor Yu as a fiction intended to justify centralized rule and, in the absence of any evidence of a massive flood at the time, many have regarded the stories of the Xia dynasty as more myth than history. 

A team of archaeologists and geologists led by Qinglong Wu of Peking University in Beijing has now discovered evidence of a massive flood that they say could be the Great Flood mentioned in the Chinese annals. ….. 

For six to nine months, Dr. Wu’s team estimates, the river ceased to flow as water accumulated in the new lake behind the dam. Then, as the water overtopped the dam’s crest, the dam rapidly gave way, releasing up to 3.8 cubic miles of water, one of the largest known floods in the last 10,000 years. The outburst flood wave could have traveled as far as 1,250 miles downstream, breaking the river’s natural banks, causing extensive flooding and even making the Yellow River switch course.

Floods are often hard to date. But the same earthquake that dammed the river provided a date by destroying a village called Lajia some 16 miles downstream. Fissures caused by the earthquake are completely filled with sediment from the outburst flood, with no annual deposit of the windblown earth that is common in the region, which means the flood occurred the same year as the earthquake, Dr. Wu’s team says.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones of three children killed by the earthquake establish that the event took place around 1920 B.C.


About ktwop

Scientist, technologist, salesman, manager, executive and now a consultant and author.
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