According to the researchers, it all began with an earthquake which destroyed the Lajia site, a settlement of the Qijia culture, which is famous for having produced the world's earliest noodles.
Cave dwellings at Lajia collapsed, killing all the people there.
But the quake was even more destructive. It triggered a massive rock slide that dammed the river and backed up a lake.
"The lake was at least 200 meters (approx. 650 feet) deep," Purdue University professor Darryl Granger said.
Within six to nine months, the lake overflowed and the landslide dam failed catastrophically, sweeping over the Lajia site.
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The researchers were able to determine the dimension of the flood channel and exactly how high the flood waters reached.
"The evidence found in our investigations along the Yellow River in Qinghai Province includes remains of a landslide dam, dammed lake sediments upstream, and outburst flood sediments downstream that allow us to reconstruct the size of the lake and flood," the researchers wrote.
The ancient landslide dam deposits reach an elevation of 785 feet above the present river level and stretch for more than 4,200 feet along Jishi Gorge.
Overall, the flood that broke the dam was of enormous proportions.
"It was about 300-500,000 cubic meters per second. To put that into perspective, it is among the largest known floods to have happened on Earth during the past 10,000 years," Granger said.
Using radiocarbon dating techniques on samples that included the skeletons of children who died in the earthquake at Lajia, the researchers dated the flood to 1920 B.C.
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They believe the inundation shares the main characteristics of the Great Flood described in ancient texts.
"Apart from its huge peak discharge, the secondary flooding on the lower plains may have been long-lasting, just as the Great Flood remained uncontrolled for 22 years until it was managed by dredging," the researchers said.
If Emperor Yu's flood is indeed rooted in geological events, then scholars should propose a new start date for the Xia dynasty. It would have began some two to three centuries later than previous thought.
Interestingly, the date of the flood, around 1900 B.C., roughly marks the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age in the Yellow River valley and coincides with the beginning of the Erlitou culture that dominated China in the early Bronze Age.
"This supports the arguments that the Erlitou culture is the archaeological manifestation of the Xia and that the Erlitou site was a Xia dynastic capital,"the researchers concluded.