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Geomythology: Can geologists relate ancient stories of great floods to real events?

The ConversationModern people have long wondered about ancient stories of great floods. Do they tell of real events in the distant past, or are they myths rooted in imagination? Most familiar to many of us in the West is the biblical story of Noah’s flood. But cultures around the world have passed down their own tales of devastating natural disasters.

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.

A view of Jishi Gorge, upstream from the landslide dam researchers say unleashed a great flood in China almost 4,000 years ago. Gray silt deposits are visible dozens of meters above the water. Wu Qinglong, CC BY-NC

“Great Yu Controls The Waters”

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. It’s strikingly different from other flood traditions in that its hero didn’t survive a world-destroying flood but rather pulled off feats of river engineering that brought order to the land and paved the way for lowland agriculture. But was Emperor Yu a real historic person, and if so what triggered the great flood so central to his story?

Diagram of the hypothesized dam outburst process in the Jishi Gorge. Wu Qinglong, CC BY-ND

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