A combination of human caused environmental degradation and efforts to control the great Yellow river in China, made almost 3,000 years ago, may be responsible for flooding that killed millions and led to the fall of an empire, according to new research. What could be considered as a grim lesson from history of the importance of responsible land use, archeologists in China have found evidence that societies changed their environments much earlier than previously believed.
“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. 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.
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.