Extreme events and mythology
1. The Gun-Yu myth of China
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Extreme Geological Events
Examining the evidenceIn 2016, a group of Chinese and American scientists were inspired by the myth to look for its cause. They were able to find, describe, and date evidence for a huge outburst flood along the Yellow River. It was caused by the creation and then failure of an enormous natural dam created by a landslide in the mountains at the headwaters of the river.They calculated that the resulting flood could have travelled 2,000 kilometres with its effects lasting 20 years. This date also coincides with the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze age in China, suggesting that as the stories describe, the cultural development of the Chinese civilisation along the valley was indeed triggered by the floods.
2. The Teonimanu myth of the Solomon IslandsThe people of the Solomon Islands have a myth that describes the sinking into the sea of the island of Teonimanu.The story describes how after Roraimenu’s wife left him for another man and went with him to the island of Teonimanu, Roraimenu purchased a wave curse and took eight cursed waves with him to the island as he chased the pair. He planted two plants on the island, and escaped. When the leaves appeared on the plants, his curse began and the eight waves struck Teonimanu, taking it under the sea forever.
Examining the evidenceThe Australian geologist Patrick Nunn has studied both the story and the seafloor around the Solomon Islands.From the shape of the seabed he has identified evidence for huge submarine landslides on the submerged flanks of the Islands. Each of them was capable of carrying an island with it as it slid downslope.He believes that this is evidence for a sudden failure of the seabed – a lot like the Storegga slide. It then produced a huge megatsunami affecting the other Solomon Islands and being remembered as the sequence of eight waves.
Over to youCan you think of any other ancient stories that could have been cultural memories of extreme events?There are lots of examples, but not all of them might truly record extreme events.
Extreme Geological Events
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