Nature gets a bad rap, according to a new paper. For thousands of years, fickle weather has been blamed for tremendous suffering caused by massive flooding along the Yellow River, long known in China as the "River of Sorrow" and "Scourge of the Sons of Han."


Not so, according to a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Instead, the Anthropocene Epoch didn't start 150 years ago, or even in 2000 A.D. when it was coined and became the buzzword for environmentalists worldwide - it started 3,000 years ago.

The authors blame the river's increasingly deadly floods to a long-term and widespread pattern of human-caused environmental degradation and related flood-mitigation efforts that began changing the river's natural flow that began with ancient construction of large-scale levees and other flood-control systems in China.  



It's the 'cradle of Chinese civilization' or the 'River of Sorrow' depending on whether or not it killed your family, but the Yellow River was the birthplace of the prosperous northern Chinese civilizations in early Chinese history. Credit: WUSTL Photo

"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 T.R. Kidder, PhD, lead author of the study and an archaeologist at Washington University. "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."

A catastrophic flood

It also suggests that the Chinese government's long-running efforts to tame the Yellow River with levees, dikes and drainage ditches actually made periodic flooding much worse, setting the stage for a catastrophic flood circa A.D. 14-17, which likely killed millions and triggered the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty.

"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."

Kidder's research, co-authored with Liu Haiwang, senior researcher at China's Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, relies on a sophisticated analysis of sedimentary soils deposited along the Yellow River over thousands of years.

It includes data from the team's ongoing excavations at the sites of two ancient communities in the lower Yellow River flood plain of China's Henan province.

The Sanyangzhuang site, known today as "China's Pompeii," was slowly buried beneath five meters of sediment during a massive flood circa A.D. 14