For 4,000 years, Chinese legend has told of a Great Flood that deluged entire villages with over 4 trillion gallons of water as the Yellow River burst its banks. And, as legend has it, out of this catastrophe rose the Emperor Yu who--upon successfully dredging the flooded lands where others had failed--became leader of China's first dynasty, the Xia. For millennia the story has been told, but only now scientists have been able to prove that the Great Flood did indeed take place, and lend credence to the ancient legend.

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King Wu of Xia

The legend of Emperor Yu's taming of the Great Flood of 1920 BC has persisted for many reasons, primarily that if true, the story marks the beginning of Chinese civilization. By exerting control over the devastating deluge, Yu was provided a divine mandate to found the first dynasty, and accounts of the event provided the basis for the Confucian rulership system. This lasted for around 2,500 years until scholars began to challenge it in the 1920s.

Which means there's a great deal of interest in determining whether or not this flood actually took place. And a research team led by Qinglong Wu at Peking University, in Beijing, China claims to have done exactly that, by studying sedimentary evidence from the region around the Yellow River in the Qinghai Province in central China.

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Skeletal remains of victims of the Lajia earthquake. Credit: Credit Cai Linhai

Previous studies have shown that a prehistoric settlement at Lajia was devastated by an earthquake at some point between 2,300 and 1,500 BC. Wu's team believes that this earthquake triggered a massive landslide, with rocks and dirt tumbling down hillsides and into the Jishi Gorge cut by the Yellow River. This landslide formed a dam, blocking the river flow. While downstream at Lajia the river dried up, a massive lake built up behind the dam, growing over a period of six to nine months.

When that dam finally gave way, it produced a truly massive torrent. As Darryl Granger, a geologist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, who worked with the research team said.

It's among the largest known floods to have happened on earth during the past 10,000 years. And it's more than 500 times larger than a flood we might expect on the Yellow River from a massive rainfall.

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The Jishi Gorge, Credit: Wu Qinglong

So Wu's team took samples from sediment beneath the Yellow River, that rather extraordinarily contains remains of the 4,000 year-old dam, as well as samples from as far as 15 miles downstream of the dam's location-where pieces of the old dam still lie. From this data, they were able to reconstruct the size to the lake that formed behind the dam and the flood that ensued.

And as a result have been able to provide scientific evidence to support an extraordinary, and key, event in China's ancient history.

Charley Cameron

Charley Cameron is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. Born and raised in Northern England, she moved to the U.S. to study photography and new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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