Great flood theory could fill a lot of gaping holes in history
The inventory of flood legends through the ages is long and wide. Ancient Sumerian myth talks about a king who saved his people after learning that the gods did not intend to spare anyone from an impending deluge. Both Plato and Ovid wrote about a great flood that had occurred thousands of years before them. In Hindu mythology, Vishnu took the form of a fish to warn a king of a coming flood in time for him to build a great ship and save his family, a do-it-yourself project also pulled off successfully by Noah in the Bible.
The list goes on — Finn, Welsh and Norse in Europe; Mbuti, Maasai and Yoruba in Africa; Maori, Hopi, Navajo all have flood stories. The Inuit reasoned that only a great flood could explain why you can find sea shells in the mountains.
All the legendary floods seem to have one thing in common — they punctuate game-changing historical events.
That’s what makes the new theory about a mega-flood on the Yellow River so fascinating. Not only because the evidence suggests that the Great Flood of Chinese lore really happened, or that the legendary first Emperor Yu really existed, but the timing of it puts it right on the cusp of China’s transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, around 1900 BCE, and the emergence of the Erlitou culture.
Emperor Yu was believed to have said: “The flood is pouring forth destruction, boundless and overwhelming. It spills over hills and mountains,” which is a pretty good description of the model described by the geologists writing in Science magazine.
A massive earthquake sends mountainsides of avalanches crashing into the steep Jishi Gorge, creating a natural dam the height of a 65-story building. Downstream the Yellow River slows to a trickle. Upstream from the blockage, the waters rise, and rise, filling the gorge over a period of nine months.
Once high enough, the waters begin to spill over the dam, which quickly erodes away, opening the floodgates, so to speak. The scientists figured the water came down the river valley at a rate of half a million cubic meters per second — a tsunami of biblical proportions that nothing can get out of the way of.
Darryl Granger, a geologist at Purdue University and coauthor of the paper, tried to put that in perspective: “That’s roughly equivalent to the largest flood ever measured on the Amazon River, the world’s largest river. It’s among the largest known floods to have happened on Earth during the past 10,000 years.”
Towns and villages, levees and canals for 1,000 miles downstream would have been washed away or submerged, the authors suggest. And people would have been talking about it for years, generations on end.
Winston Churchill was apparently fond of saying that the Chinese character for “crisis” was a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”.
And an opportunity it proved to be for Yu, first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, dredger of canals, digger of channels that drain the deadly torrents away and tame them into service.
“He brings order out of the chaos and defines the land, separating what would become the center of Chinese civilization,” said co-author David Cohen, assistant professor of anthropology at National Taiwan University.
“This outburst flood provides us with a tantalizing hint that the Xia Dynasty might really have existed.”
The theory needs more supporting evidence to get the entire scientific community on board, but in that wonderful way that science works, researchers now know what to look for.
University of Washington geomorphologist David Montgomery wrote an accompanying commentary for the study in Science, calling the paper compelling evidence “for the historicity of the Great Flood myth,” noting that flood myths from various cultures usually spring from the environment they live in.
An archaeological site in the upper Yellow River region.