The Yellow River’s deadly floods in China have been linked to a widespread pattern of environmental degradation and anti-flooding tactics that started changing the river’s natural flow approximately 3,000 years ago.
The Yellow River, which is also known as “River of Sorrow” and “Scourge of the Sons of Han” in China, has been blamed for the numerous deaths that floods bring every year, yet now it would appear as if the floods are the effect of man.
“Human intervention in the Chinese environment is relatively massive, remarkably early and nowhere more keenly witnessed than in attempts to harness the Yellow river”, said Tristram Kidder, lead author of the new study published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.
“In some ways, these findings offer a new benchmark for the beginning of the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans became the most dominant global force in nature,” Kidder added.
Chinese society has a complicated relationship with the Yellow river, the second longest river in Asia. It is known as both ‘the cradle of Chinese civilization’, because of ancient societies formed on its basin and ‘China’s sorrow’.
The study provides the earliest known archaeological evidence for human construction of large-scale levees and other flood-control systems in China. It also shows that the Chinese government’s efforts to tame the Yellow River with drainage ditches and levees actually made flooding a lot worse. As walls were built higher, the more dangerous the previously stable Yellow River became.
“New evidence from China and elsewhere show us that past societies changed environments far more than we’ve ever suspected,” said Kidder, the Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor in Arts & Sciences and chair of anthropology at WUSTL. “By 2,000 years ago, people were controlling the Yellow River or at least thought they were controlling it and that’s the problem.”
The study includes data from the team’s digs at the sites of two ancient communities in the lower Yellow River flood plain of China’s Henan province.
Now, Kidder and his colleagues believe they have proof that the ancient Chinese began building drainage and irrigation canals and bank and levee systems along Yellow river around 2,700-2,900 years ago, and that this changed its character.
They suggest these defences were needed because more intensive agriculture was causing increasing erosion upstream. As the walls were built higher, the more dangerous the previously stable Yellow river became.
When the levees broke, the river not only flooded but it also often changed course. Before the floods of AD 14-17, it is believed that some 9.5 million people lived in the rivers path.
The conclusion drawn by the study suggests that Chinese began building drainage, irrigation canals and bank levee systems along the lower reaches of the Yellow River about 2,900-2,700 years ago. This did not help, rather worsened the condition as it caused sediments to accumulate in the river bed, raising the river higher and making it more vulnerable to flooding. So, the ancient levee system is to be blamed for all the massive dynasty-toppling floods in China.