A study by lead author Tristram Kidder, published recently in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, surveys the long history of China's attempts to harness the power of the Yellow River. As Kidder shows, these efforts -- continuous now for some 3,000 years -- have enabled larger and more extensive flooding over time.
"Human intervention in the Chinese environment is relatively massive, remarkably early and nowhere more keenly witnessed than in attempts to harness the Yellow river," explained Kidder.
The Yellow River, the second longest in Asia, is dually known as "the cradle of Chinese civilization" and "China's sorrow" -- the former for its role in nourishing China's earliest peoples, the latter for its propensity for devastation and calamity.
It's estimated that upwards of 2 million people died when the river flooded in 1887. And somewhere between 1 and 4 million died in a 1931 flood. A flood in the 1st century is thought to have instigated rebellion during the Han Dynasty.
Along the way, as Kidder's study details, attempts to prevent future flooding and to maximize's the river's flow for farming purposes only made future floods more catastrophic.
Kidder, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and his fellow researchers say the evidence suggest the Chinese began drastically altering the course and behavior of the Yellow River some 2,700 to 2,900 years ago -- constructing drainage and irrigation canals and elaborate bank and levee systems.
"It's easy to see the trap they fell into: building levees causes sediments to accumulate in the river bed, raising the river higher, and making it more vulnerable to flooding," explained Kidder, "which requires you to build the levee higher, which causes the sediments to accumulate, and the process repeats itself."
Of course, the hubris of man remains alive and well. Which is why Kidder warns this new study shouldn't be taken as a story of ancient blunders -- but as a lesson for today.
"To think that we can avoid similar catastrophe today due to better technology is a dangerous notion," he said. "Unlike ancient China, where human mistakes devastated a single river valley, we now have the technology to make mistakes that can cause devastation on a truly global scale."