536 AD: The Worst Year in Human History

Oct 25, 2022 | Dark History, Deadly Earth

October 25, 2022
10 min read

In 536 AD the world was ending. Well it didn’t, as we all know sitting in the 21st century. But for those alive in the 6th century, we would forgive them for thinking that the apocalypse was upon them.

A Sign of the End

The end times began suddenly, as a thick cloud rolled over Europe, Asia and Northern Africa.

Sun shines through thick Stratus layer. Simon Eugster –Simon 16:19, 1 July 2006 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Blocking out the sun, this cloud cast the world in darkness for up to 18 months. Quotes from contemporaries, once thought to be an exaggeration, have since been confirmed by science. Witnesses at the time described this event as:

“The sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.”


“The sun shone feebly for a year and a half.”


“The sun seems to have lost its wonted light and appears a bluish colour. We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon and to feel the mighty vigour of its heat wasted into feebleness.”


While the idea of an enormous cloud engulfing the sun and plunging the world into darkness sounds like legend, it has a perfectly valid scientific explanation.

Welcome to the Ice Age

Evidence points to an enormous volcanic eruption, spewing toxic aerosols and ash into the atmosphere. This massive ash cloud could have blanketed continents and deposited enough material in the air to block out the sun long term.

The average temperature across Europe dropped by 2.5° C (about 2.9° to 4.5° F on average). In fact, the climate was so severely impacted that it snowed in China in the summer. As far away as Peru, months of heavy rain followed by severe droughts devastated local communities.

Through careful analysis of ice cores taken from both Antarctica and Greenland (sulfur particles found in the ice can indicate volcanic eruptions), and studying rings found in ancient trees in Ireland (the spacing of the rings can tell us about the climate throughout the tree’s life), scientists have an idea of the timeline of what happened.

The EastGRIP ice core. Helle Astrid Kjær, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In late 535 AD or early 536 AD we know there was a massive eruption that started this global climate change.

While we have not determined specifically which volcano caused this devastation, some possible candidates suggested by scientists and historians include Krakatoa in Indonesia, Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, Ilopango in El Salvador, or an unnamed volcano in North America or Iceland. The Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine believes the suspect volcano is in Iceland.

Eyjafjallajökull major eruption. David Karnå, CC BY 1.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We know that by March of 536 AD the world had grown cold and dark. Yet this was only the beginning. Evidence suggests that there was yet another volcanic eruption in 539 or 540 AD, and possibly another around 547 AD.

These frequent eruptions caused a volcanic winter that lasted nearly a century, until the mid to late 600’s, an event that we now refer to as the Late Antique Little Ice Age.

While it was only the beginning of this cold period, research suggests that 536 AD was the coldest year on record in the last 2,300 years.

Widespread Famine and Suffering

As you could guess, this drastic reduction in sunlight and temperature caused devastating effects to the environment. Crops failed and famine became widespread as the world was suddenly faced with a food shortage that it was not prepared for. At the time, large scale food production or storage was non-existent and most people did not have the excess resources needed to survive.

The Plague of Hail, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. Illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Little could be done to recover as the world was rocked with one volcanic eruption after another. It’s believed that the eruption of 540 AD put more aerosols into the atmosphere than the infamous eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815, which led to the “Year Without a Summer”.

If widespread famine wasn’t enough, yet another threat to humanity’s survival was on the way. Years of suffering through cold and starvation left people weak with compromised immune systems, paving the way for the first recorded plague pandemic in 541 AD: the Plague of Justinian.

The Plague of Justinian

Much like the infamous “Black Death” that would sweep through Europe in the 14th century, the Plague of Justinian shared many of the same symptoms. Those infected suffered from delusions, nightmares, fever, swelling in the groin and armpit, abdominal pain and comas as they waited for death to take them.

“Doktor Schnabel von Rom” (“Doctor Beak from Rome”), engraving, Rome 1656. I. Columbina (drawer), Paul Fürst (copper engraver), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that this plague wiped out 1/3 to 1/2 of the Byzantine Empire, and it’s been suggested that in Constantinople alone there were 5,000 to 10,000 deaths per day. Ending in 549 AD, it’s estimated that there were up to 25 – 50 million deaths around the world, wiping out up to 10% of the world’s population at the time.

What a Time to be Alive

Despite all the suffering occurring during this time period, life continued on. The Gothic Wars raged as people tried to survive. Procopius summed it up best in this chilling commentary:

“Men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.”


The City of the Pestilence — B1991.16.8 — Yale Center for British Art. John Bell, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually the atmosphere would begin to clear, the crops would grow again and the plague would pass. Humanity would grow as we entered into the Early Middle Ages, formerly referred to as the Dark Ages. While it would take more than a century for the world to get out of this ice age and heal, 536 AD was just the beginning of one of the worst times in history to be alive.

Welcome to the start of the Dark Ages, things were dark indeed.



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