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New research recently published in Science by a group of mostly Chinese researchers led by Qinglong Wu reports geological evidence for an event they propose may be behind China’s story of a great flood.

This new research delves into the field of geomythology, which relates oral traditions and folklore to natural phenomena like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods.

Native American stories from coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest tell of great battles between Thunderbird and Whale that shook the ground and sent great waves crashing ashore.

These stories sound like prescientific descriptions of a tsunami: an earthquake-triggered wave that can catastrophically inundate shorelines without warning.

Other flood stories evoke the failure of ice and debris dams on the margins of glaciers that suddenly release the lakes they held back.

A Scandinavian flood story, for example, tells of how Odin and his brothers killed the ice giant Ymir, causing a great flood to burst forth and drown people and animals.

Around the tsunami-prone Pacific, flood stories tell of disastrous waves that rose from the sea.The 1,200-year-old carbon dates from wood fragments we collected from the lake sediments correspond to the time when the guru arrived in the valley and converted the local populace to Buddhism by defeating, so the story goes, the demon of the lake to reveal the fertile lake bottom that the villagers still farm.Of course, attempts to bring science to bear on relating ancient tales to actual events are fraught with speculation.A longer route to the sea would impose a gentler slope that would promote deposition of sediment, clogging the channel, and splitting flow into multiple channels—all of which would exacerbate flooding of lowland areas.This sounds like a pretty good setup for the story of Yu’s long labor to drain the floodwaters and channel them to the sea.They estimated the landslide dam’s failure sent almost a half million cubic meters of water per second surging down the Yellow River and on across early China.They also note that the timing of this flood coincides with a major archaeological transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age in the downstream lowlands along the Yellow River.The story of Emperor Yu, the legendary founder of China’s first dynasty, centers on his ability to drain persistent floodwaters from lowland areas, bringing order to the land.This ancient flood story centers on the triumph of human ingenuity and labor over the chaotic forces of the natural world.And this, in turn, would help explain a unique aspect of the story of Yu’s flood.A large river rerouted to a new course could trigger persistent lowland flooding.The Science study not only reports evidence of a great flood at the right time and place to be Yu’s flood, but also notes how it coincides with a previously identified shift in the course of the Yellow River to a new outlet across the North China plain.The researchers suggest the flood they identified may have breached the levees on the lowland river and triggered this shift.In their new analysis, Wu and colleagues build on previous studies of landslides in the Jishi Gorge that dammed the Yellow River where it flows down off the Tibetan Plateau.They marshal geological and archaeological evidence to argue that when a landslide dam failed, a flood ripped down China’s Yellow River around 1920 B. They dated lake sediments trapped upstream of the landslide dam and flood sediments deposited downstream at elevations of up to 165 feet above river level.

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