An Archaeological Perspective on Changes in the Course of the Yellow River and Changes in Civilization

By / 01-29-2022 /

Social Sciences in China, 2021

Vol. 42, No. 4, 2021


An Archaeological Perspective on Changes in the Course of the Yellow River and Changes in Civilization



Yuan Guangkuo


The Yellow River has always been known for “easily silting up, easily bursting its banks, and easily shifting course” and its course has indeed changed many times. It did not undergo any large-scale course changes during the pre-Qin period, but instead followed the course given in the “Hanzhi 汉志 (Treatises in the Book of Han).” The river recorded in the Yugong禹贡 (Tribute of Yu) is actually the Hanzhi river, and the he (river) recorded in the Yugong that passed through the counties of Xunxian and Neihuang actually followed the former course of the Qi River. The Yellow River’s large-scale course changes began in the Han dynasty. After two thousand years of frequent changes, a 6-15 meters thick layer of sediment formed in the lower reaches of the Yellow River, completely altering the natural landscape of hills, rivers and lakes that had existed in the pre-Qin lower Yellow River, and finally shaping today’s landscape of an endless plain. The course changes brought about a rupture in the development of civilization in this area, with most cities and towns destroyed. The changes in the ecological and living environment around the lower Yellow River over thousands of years were apparently related to the flooding and course changes of the Yellow River, but in reality were caused by human over-exploitation of natural resources.


Keywords: Pre-Qin period, Yugong river, Hanzhi river, river course change