The legends just may be true! Researchers have dug up evidence, more than 4,000 years old, that seems to back up the origin story of China’s first dynasty, the mythical Xia Dynasty.
According to ancient sources, the dynasty was founded by Yu the Great in the 3rd millennium BCE. Yu earned his nickname by taming massive and devastating floods from the Yellow River, winning him many friends and allies. This allowed Yu to create a kingdom that was traditionally seen as the beginning of China’s 4,000-year-old dynastic history. Later historians have cast China’s great founding story as a myth, considering the lack of any actual evidence… until now?
According to Xinhua News, a team of Chinese and American researchers have discovered evidence of a great flood occurring in the Yellow River around the time that the Xia Dynasty was said to be in power. Publishing their findings in Friday’s issue of Science Magazine, they said that the variety of evidence uncovered ranges from “sedimentary deposits, earthquake-triggered landslides, and skeletons in collapsed cave dwellings”.
Drawn from experts in archaeology, anthropology, seismology and geology, the team started their investigation back in 2007 when Nanjing University professor and geologist Wu Qinglong first discovered ancient lakebed sediments in Jishi Gorge, which is 1,300 kilometers west of Beijing. Ancient texts described that the massive flood occurred when a dam holding back the waters of the Yellow River collapsed. The team speculates that rubble from a nearby landslide blocked the river, becoming a dam and forming a lake. When that dam collapsed, it would have caused a major flood downriver.
Excited by what they had discovered, Wu and his team hiked 25 kilometers downstream to Lajia, an archaeological site. Home to the world’s oldest noodles, the settlement was ravaged by an earthquake, killing its neolithic inhabitants. From there, the team managed to find mud deposits that were similar to the ones found in the Jishi Gorge.
According to the BBC, Wu stated that “the subsequent investigation confirmed this speculation and showed that the sediments from this outburst flood are up to 20m thick, and up to 50m higher than the Yellow River – indicating an unprecedented, devastating flood.”
Eventually, they came to the conclusion that, as geologist Darryl Granger claimed, “the earthquake and flood must have occurred in the same year.” Furthermore, carbon dating on flood deposits and earthquake victims’ bones all date to 1,922 BCE, which roughly corresponds to the time period which ancient sources claimed that the flood struck and the Xia Dynasty was formed.
The utter devastation brought on by this massive flood, which could have destroyed settlements even a thousand or more kilometers downstream would have led to “chaos from which a new political order emerged,” argues archaeologist David Cohen. Of course, this would correspond with the ancient narrative of Yu’s success in containing the Yellow River winning him many allies and supporters, giving him the opportunity to forge China’s first dynasty.
However, there are a number of concerns about the study. According to interviews conducted by The New York Times, the tremendous length of time between when the flood occurred and when it was first written down creates some serious problems. After all, there were many floods during that period (just like our own) and it would difficult for a folk memory to be passed down verbally for 900 years without changing significantly, historian Sarah Allen argues.
Meanwhile, historian Paul Goldin sees the flood as a legend that was propagated for “philosophical and poltical reasons,” given the fact that this tale was only first written down in 450 BCE, more than 1,000 years after the legendary flood occurred.
Still, the study is better than nothing. Before this there was no scientific evidence that the Xia Dynasty had ever existed. Now at least there’s a little bit.
For those interested in the research, you can access the full paper here.
Or just check out this video:
And if you want to learn more about the mythical Xia Dynasty, listen to what Laszlo Montgomery has to say about it and the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors over at the China History Podcast.
By Arnie Yung
[Images from Tuwenba/ Wikimedia Commons/ Xinhua]