Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 1585–1602 | Cite as

Bridging theoretical gaps in geoarchaeology: archaeology, geoarchaeology, and history in the Yellow River valley, China

Original Paper


While geoarchaeology as a practice within archaeology grew out of many historical roots, a major role has been the explication of site formation processes and site-level contextual analysis. In recent years, geoarchaeological research has branched out to encompass larger geographic scales, and to play a greater role in environmental archaeological investigations. This paper argues that geoarchaeology has a great deal to contribute to the understanding of human history and to archaeological theory through the application of multiscalar approaches that place human behavior in a physical, environmental and ecological context and by creating linkages between physical processes and human responses. We use geoarchaeological data from the Yellow River valley to show that drainage/irrigation canal and bank/levee building had commenced in the lower reaches by ca. 2900–2700 cal B.P. The emphasis on flood plain flood control infrastructure was a result of long-term increases in sedimentation caused by large populations farming with increasingly efficient technologies in the fragile environments of the Loess Plateau. Ever increasing sedimentation set in motion a cycle of further investment in flood control works eventually leading to a massive flood catastrophe in the first 20 years of the first millennium A.D. as the Yellow River exceeded natural and human geomorphic thresholds that constrained it in its previous course. These floods arguably triggered the social and political events that brought down the Western Han Dynasty but the root causes are clearly more complex. Geoarchaeology thus contributes to an understanding of the multiple causes and consequences of large-scale social and political collapse.


Han Dynasty Archaeology Geoarchaeology History Yellow River Floods Rigidity traps 



The authors are indebted to many for their research. We especially want to acknowledge the cooperation of Sun Xinmin, Director of the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and Dr. Ma Xiaolin, of the Henan Bureau of Culture. Our research has benefited greatly by the advice of many scholars, notably Mo Duowen, Jing Zhichun, Hung Ling-yu, Zhuang Yijie, and Xu Qinghai. Fieldwork was ably assisted by Michael Storozum, Qin Zhen, and Li Minglin. Michael Lamb graciously provided the base map for Fig. 2 and Michael Storozum created Fig. 3. We have benefited greatly from the comments of Vance T. Holliday and an anonymous reviewer. Funding for this work comes from the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environmental Partnership, and the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability of Washington University.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington UniversitySt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Henan Provincial institute of Cultural Relics and ArchaeologyZhengzhouChina

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