A new discovery suggests that it happened—but there is more at stake here than archaeologyby Philip Ball / August 10, 2016 / Leave a comment
The discovery of geological evidence for a massive flood on the Yellow River around 4000 years ago will surely delight the Chinese authorities. According to a paper published in Science by a team of primarily Chinese archaeologists and geographers, this event lends support to the ancient idea of a prehistoric civilization called the Xia dynasty, based in the lower Yellow River basin: the first manifestation of the Chinese state which, after a succession of other imperial dynasties, now resides in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
News reports of the discovery, including a commentary in Science itself, have pretty much universally accepted the story put forth in the paper. The scientific results, say its authors, show that the myth of a Great Flood, from which the Xia was said to have emerged, could be based on a real historical event. The researchers also say that their work supports arguments that this Xia dynasty can be identified with a Bronze Age culture whose artifacts have been excavated at a site at Erlitou in Henan province in central northern China. This finding, they imply, offers a rejoinder to those scholars who have seen the Xia dynasty “purely as a myth fabricated to justify political succession.”
But within that passing comment is a story that needs careful unpacking before we swallow the headlines. The politicised nature of these claims has been totally ignored in the news coverage, and the view of myth that they advocate is rather simplistic and naïve.
The findings themselves are undoubtedly interesting. Archaeologist Qinglong Wu of Peking University and his collaborators have studied deposits from an ancient landslide that formed a natural dam in Jishi Gorge, Qinghai province, through which the upper Yellow River flows from its source in high glacier lakes. The landslide was probably triggered by an earthquake known to have destroyed a prehistoric settlement at Lajia, 20 km or so downstream. They figure that the dam would have totally blocked the river for many months, creating a huge natural reservoir.