The Year 536 CE Was One Of The Worst Times To Be Alive In Human History


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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Etching attributed to J.-A. Chovin, 1720-1776, after the Basel dance of death. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

We currently live in the safest time in human history. Sure, “strongman politics” has made a comeback, many of the planet’s biggest problems remain unsolved, and there was that god-awful year when half of the world’s most beloved celebrities dropped dead. Nevertheless, relatively speaking, the 2010s are a great time to be alive.

So, when was the crappiest time to be alive? This question was inadvertently raised by a recent historical study attempting to figure out how the European monetary system changed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Writing in the journal Antiquity, the researchers were looking for evidence of pollution from silver processing in the ice cores buried deep in the European Alps. In doing so, they came across all kinds of insights into natural disasters and climate changes throughout the centuries.


One thing was clear: the century following the year 536 CE was a goddamn miserable time to be alive.

“It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," study author Michael McCormick, a medieval historian at Harvard, told Science Magazine.

This era was grim, not because of bloody wars or ferocious diseases, but due to a number of extreme weather events that led to a widespread famine. Although there are many theories floating around as to why this famine occurred, some of the sturdiest evidence points towards a “volcanic winter,” where ash and dust were thrown into the air from an eruption of a volcano, thereby obscuring the Sun with a "mystery cloud."

Nobody is completely certain which volcano was the culprit, although El Salvador's Ilopango has long stood as a top contender. However, this new study hints that the eruption was in Iceland, as the ice cores in Europe contain volcanic glass that’s chemically similar to particles found across Europe and Greenland.


Whatever the volcano, its effects were widespread, sparking the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” and a chain of global crop failure and famine. Snow fell during the summer in China, and droughts hit Peru. Meanwhile, Gaelic Irish annals talk of "a failure of bread in the year 536 [CE].” It seems there was scarcely a corner of Earth left unscathed. Procopius, a Byzantine historian living in the Middle East at the time, also wrote of "dread" caused by a foggy eclipse of the Sun.

The mini ice age also brought up a load of social problems. Some researchers have even argued that the effects of the volcanic event in 536 CE were so profound, they brought down empires (or at least tipped them over the edge). As noted in a 2016 study in Nature Geosciencethe century after the volcanic eruption saw the collapse of the Sasanian Empire, the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire, political upheavals in China, and many other instances of bloody social turmoil across Eurasia.

All in all, a crummy time to be alive.

[H/T: Science Magazine]


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