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A huge deluge at the dawn of Chinese civilisation is said in legend to have swept away settlements, the water rising so high that it overran hills, mountains and even heaven itself.
King Yu is said to have tamed the waters by building ditches, thus earning a mandate to rule and laying the foundation for China's first dynasty, the Xia.
Until now, scientists could not pin down evidence that the flood, or Yu, or even the Xia Dynasty ever existed outside the origin myths passed down through millennia.
Now a team of researchers led by Wu Qianlong, a former Peking University seismologist, have said in a study in the journal Science that they have found evidence that a flood submerged a vast area of the country.
Using radiocarbon dating of juvenile bones and soil samples along the Yellow River, Mr Wu's team established that an earthquake triggered a huge landslide, damming the waterway in 1920 BC.
The researchers deduced that for six to nine months about 15 trillion litres of water built up behind a wall of rock and dirt near Jishi Gorge in today's Qinghai province. When the dam broke, it tore through the gorge at 500 times the Yellow River's average discharge and submerged the North China Plain that is considered the cradle of Chinese civilisation.
The flood would have predated by several centuries the first written records kept on oracle bones. Historical texts from about 1000 BC first mentioned a legendary Xia ruler, Yu, who had devised a system of dredges to control a great flood that spanned generations.
He was said to have been based around Jishi Gorge, according to various texts, and his ability to combat natural disasters and earn a heavenly mandate to rule established him as a model for generations of subsequent Chinese rulers.
His legend was later immortalised in some of the best-known historical texts of Chinese antiquity, including the Bamboo Annals of 300 BC, and the Records of the Grand Historian by the Han Dynasty court official Sima Qian in 94 BC.
The legend has been hotly debated in modern times. Over the past century, China scholars have doubted whether the Xia existed, or whether it was truly an expansive, unified state rather than simply many smaller states lumped together by ancient Chinese political thinkers to justify a tradition of centralised power.
In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered buildings and bronze remains at Erlitou village in Henan province that were carbon dated to about 1900 BC. Many scholars believe the settlement, which may have had a population of 30,000, could have been the ancient Xia capital.