“This was the first stage in the founding of Chinese civilisation,” says Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University. “But no scientific evidence had been discovered until now.”
This lack of evidence for such a flood had prompted some to challenge the truth of the story.
But we now have the first compelling evidence that the flood did actually happen at the time and place chronicled in the legend.
In the Jishi Gorge, along the Yellow river, his team discovered rocks and sedimentary formations that could only have existed as a result of a cataclysmic flood.
They also found evidence of an earthquake and analysed the skeletons of three children (see picture below), which helped them recreate the timeline of what happened.
“The first thing was the earthquake, and this triggered a huge landslide that blocked the river,” says Darryl Granger of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The dammed water became a lake 200 metres deep.
“The lake built up behind and took six to nine months to fill up before the water overtopped, causing the dam to fail catastrophically,” he says.
This released a huge volume of water, estimated at between 12 and 17 cubic kilometres, two to three times as much as contained by Loch Ness in Scotland.
The floods engulfed Lajia, the archaeological site 25 kilometres downstream where the bodies of the three children killed by the earthquake months earlier lay buried, and where the world’s oldest noodles were found.
Rocks and debris deposited by the floodwaters around the children’s home show the earthquake and flood must have happened within a year of each other. The clinching evidence for this was that cracks in Lajia created by the quake were filled with flood-related sediment, not the fine silt sediment deposited by annual rainwater runoff at the same site each year, showing that the flood sediment got there first, and so must have arrived within a year of the quake.
And radiocarbon dating of the skeletons showed the children died around 1920 BC, roughly in accordance with the time of the legend.
“It corresponds so closely in time with the legends of the flood and the beginning of the Bronze Age in China,” says David Cohen, an anthropologist at National Taiwan University.
Cohen says that according to the historical accounts, it took Emperor Yu 22 years to bring the floodwaters under control through massive dredging operations, after which he established the dynasty marking China’s transition to modernisation.
“In the accounts, the hero Yu was able to control the flood through dredging, bringing order from chaos,” says Cohen. “It’s very much about the establishment of a new political order and the principles of rulership that went with it.”
“The flood they document is in the right place and time to explain the origin of Yu’s flood,” says David Montgomery of the University of Washington in Seattle. “The case they’ve put together is quite compelling, but it doesn’t settle whether the flood reported was indeed the origin of this ancient flood story.”
“It’s probably beyond the reach of science to ‘prove’ the origin of an oral tradition handed down generation to generation for a thousand years before the first written records,” he says. “But it supports the historicity of events central to the early history of Chinese civilisation, and provides another example of how some of humanity’s oldest stories — tales often taken as mythology or folklore — may be rooted in natural disasters that really happened.”
Coghlan, Andy. 2016. “First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story”. New Scientist. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2100038-first-evidence-of-legendary-flood-reveals-chinas-origin-story/