Many cultures trace their origins to the hazy horizon where history meets legend. In China's case, that blurry line occurs sometime between 2200 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E., when a legendary hero named Yu tamed Yellow River flooding and earned a mandate to become the founding emperor of the Xia dynasty, the country's first. That’s the story according to texts written long after the fact, and many Chinese believe their civilization started with emperor Yu. But archaeologists have been unable to find convincing evidence for either the flood or the Xia dynasty itself.
The massive flood “provides us with a tantalizing hint that the Xia dynasty might really have existed," says David Cohen, an archaeologist and co-author at National Taiwan University in Taipei. The devastating flood could have inundated settlements even a thousand or more kilometers downstream, he says, and created chaos from which a new political order emerged. This sequence of events neatly fits the legend of Yu controlling the flooding by dredging channels to confine the Yellow River and its tributaries. This feat, the ancient texts say, allowed him to claim a mandate as the first emperor of the Xia dynasty.
The timing is curiously coincidental. Around 1900 B.C.E., Cohen says, Chinese society was transitioning from the Neolithic to the Bronze age. The date also correlates with what is called the Erlitou culture, which is known from palace buildings and bronze smelting workshops discovered near Zhengzhou, about 2500 kilometers downstream from Jishi Gorge. Many scholars have argued that Erlitou is a manifestation of the elusive Xia dynasty, but a link is not firmly established.
Science 05 Aug 2016: Vol. 353, Issue 6299, pp. 579-582 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0842
Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty
China’s historiographical traditions tell of the successful control of a Great Flood leading to the establishment of the Xia dynasty and the beginning of civilization. However, the historicity of the flood and Xia remain controversial. Here, we reconstruct an earthquake-induced landslide dam outburst flood on the Yellow River about 1920 BCE that ranks as one of the largest freshwater floods of the Holocene and could account for the Great Flood. This would place the beginning of Xia at ~1900 BCE, several centuries later than traditionally thought. This date coincides with the major transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age in the Yellow River valley and supports hypotheses that the primary state-level society of the Erlitou culture is an archaeological manifestation of the Xia dynasty.