Experts Revealed The Worst Year In Human History – And Why It Was A Truly Terrible Time To Be Alive

Every year, it seems, there are people quick to declare it “the worst yet” – and often with good reason. From periods marred by climate crises and far-reaching wars to those defined by global pandemics, there’ve been plenty of candidates for the dubious accolade. But recently, experts declared an unfortunate winner.

So when really was the worst year to be alive? Was it 1918, when the world shifted from brutal war to killer disease? Or earlier, in 1349, when the Black Death stalked much of Europe? In a revelation that might well surprise you, experts have revealed that there was one period that was even grimmer than these strong contenders.

During this year, a strange cloud swept over Europe, dulling the sun’s rays and heralding a time of famine and death. In its wake, harvests were ruined and temperatures plummeted as far away as China, creating wide-spread confusion and despair. And almost overnight, people everywhere found themselves facing what must have felt like our planet’s final days.

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At the time, Roman witnesses wrote of a constant eclipse and an eerie atmosphere that left a blue pallor across the Earth. According to the legislator Cassiodorus, even shadows disappeared, while the seasons became impossible to tell apart. And that was just the start of what experts have deemed the darkest time to be alive.

But what horrors did this year need to beat out in order to win this unfortunate accolade? Looking at history, it soon becomes clear that the competition was tough. In the mid-14th century, for example, the deadliest pandemic in human history reached its peak in Europe. And by the end of the outbreak, as many as 200 million people had died – 50 percent of the continent’s total populace.

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Today, many scholars point to 1349 as the year in which the Black Death was at its worst. But the disease wasn’t the only thing that made this a terrible time to be alive. As millions fell to the pestilence, communities grew so paranoid that they slaughtered each other in a vain attempt to appease what they perceived to be a vengeful God.

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Depending on where you were in the world, 1520 was also a pretty horrific year to be alive. In the Americas, the Spanish had been busy conquering indigenous civilizations since the end of the 15th century. But as well as superior weapons, they also carried with them something else that decimated local populations: European diseases.

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In April 1520 the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez came to Veracruz in what’s now Mexico, intent on bringing Hernán Cortés into line. But he ended up actually helping the rogue Spaniard in his conquest of the Aztec Empire. That’s because de Narváez unwittingly brought smallpox to the New World.

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Having had no previous encounters with smallpox, the indigenous population of the Americas hadn’t developed any kind of immunity to it. And before long, a deadly epidemic had spread across the continent like wildfire, wiping out as many as nine-tenths of its initial inhabitants. The following year, Cortés succeeded in conquering the Aztec Empire, resulting in thousands more deaths.

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But according to experts, neither of these brutal years make the cut as the worst that history has ever seen. So if the Black Death and smallpox epidemics weren’t enough to earn the title, then what was? Perhaps it was something more recent, such as the almost apocalyptic nightmare that was 1918?

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Like many of the bleakest periods in history, 1918 wasn’t a terrible year for one reason alone. Instead, it served as the culmination of several dark and distressing chains of events. Some four years previously, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had begun hostilities with Serbia, launching the conflict that would escalate into World War One.

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As it progressed, this conflict would prove to be one of the deadliest in history, resulting in around 18 million combatant and civilian fatalities combined. But by 1918 it must have seemed as if there was some light at the end of the tunnel. On November 11, Germany surrendered, and World War One finally came to an end.

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With that, troops were finally allowed to leave the trenches and return to their homes across the planet. But 1918 had plenty more horrors left in store. As the world struggled to recover from the devastating war, the Spanish flu tore through Europe and North America, causing millions of additional fatalities.

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Despite the pestilence and war that characterized these years, though, experts believe that there was one annum that trumped them all in the bleakness stakes: 536 A.D. But what was it about these 12 months that made them the worst to ever be inflicted upon the Earth? And how did society recover from such a terrible period in time?

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Of course, the world in 536 was very different to the one which we inhabit today. In Britain, it would be another three centuries before the first monarch, King Egbert, would take to the throne. And across the Atlantic in the Americas, the ancient Maya civilization was at its peak.

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Around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, the Byzantine Empire had recently reached its peak under the leadership of Emperor Justinian I. Having inherited a kingdom severely diminished since the glory days of the Roman Empire, he’d set his sights on reclaiming the lost territories to the west. And in many places, he’d succeeded.

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By 536 Justinian had recaptured North Africa, along with parts of what’s now Italy, France and Spain. But just as the empire was returning to something approaching its former glory, a shadow fell across much of the world. Years later, researchers would uncover accounts written at the time and ponder over what terrible disaster might have occurred.

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“For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year,” the Roman historian Procopius wrote in his History of the Wars, “and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.”

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So what happened? For centuries, experts were mystified as to what could’ve prompted descriptions of such a bleak world. But then in the 1990s scientists studying vegetation in Ireland made a startling discovery. By looking at the rings inside tree trunks, they were able to establish that an unusual event really had occurred at the time of these strange reports.

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Elsewhere, records seemed to support the idea that summers around this time had become abnormally chilly, with temperatures dropping as many as 37° F. Far from Rome, where Procopius and Cassiodorus wrote their accounts of a washed-out sun, came accounts of snow falling on China during months that were typically warm. And all around the world, numerous disasters began to unfold.

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But establishing that something had happened was only part of the mystery. And it wasn’t until a team of researchers released a paper in 2018 that the true extent of the disaster was revealed. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the answers had been discovered buried deep beneath the ice in Switzerland’s mountains.

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In 2013 a team headed by University of Maine geologist Paul Mayewski began studying ice core samples extracted from the Colle Gnifetti glacier on the border between Italy and Switzerland. Plunging down hundreds of feet, the drill site yielded an astonishing array of data covering the past two millennia of human history. And as the experts picked it apart, an incredible story began to emerge.

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Using cutting-edge technology, the team was able to isolate samples relating to specific periods in time. And by analyzing these, Mayewski and his colleagues managed to identify events such as atmospheric pollution, volcanic activity and stormy weather with remarkable accuracy. So what did that mean for 536 and its dubious title of the worst year on Earth?

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Practically speaking, this approach allowed the researchers to build up a clear picture of what was happening on the planet at several points during the past two millennia. For example, the samples revealed that lead pollution practically disappeared from the atmosphere between 1349 and 1353. And this matches up with the peak of the Black Death, when the epidemic would have stopped industrial activity.

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By this juncture, researchers already had some idea of what’d occurred in 536. As well as the strange cloud and bizarre weather, records revealed a series of disastrous harvests around the world, resulting in mass starvation. And now the team was able to determine exactly what had sparked this terrible year.

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In the ice samples, the team found evidence of large-scale volcanic activity that occurred in what’s now Iceland towards the beginning of 536. As lava spewed out of the Earth, a heavy ash cloud spread out over the Northern Hemisphere, thick enough to cast a veil over the Sun. And for as long as a year and a half, huge swathes of the planet remained in darkness.

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Of course, the effects of such a cataclysmic event were felt far and wide. As the area under the cloud cooled, the world’s climate was thrown into disarray. At the time, Cassiodorus wrote, “We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon… Strange has been the course of this year thus far. We have had a winter without storms, a spring without mildness, and a summer without heat. Whence we can look for harvest, since the months which should have been maturing the corn have been chilled by Boreas?”

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According to Michael McCormick, who led the research team alongside Mayewski, the evidence from the ice cores proves that people such as Cassiodorus weren’t exaggerating. Speaking to the television network History, he explained, “It was a pretty drastic change; it happened overnight. The ancient witnesses were really onto something. They were not being hysterical or imagining the end of the world.”

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Bearing all of this in mind, then, it’s no wonder that the bleak, sunless 536 has been dubbed the grimmest year ever. But unfortunately for people such as Cassiodorus, those 12 months were only a taste of what was to come. Speaking to Science magazine, McCormick said, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.”

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As food shortages continued, there was further large-scale volcanic activity in 540, heaping more problems upon an already struggling society. Then, the following year, a deadly illness emerged in an Egyptian port: the bubonic plague. Within months, it’d spread across the Byzantine Empire, leaving carnage in its wake.

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By 549, the epidemic, which was dubbed the Plague of Justinian, had killed as much as 50 percent of the empire’s populace. And today, it’s considered to have played a significant part in the ensuing demise of the empire. Another volcano had also erupted in 547, further worsening the already apocalyptic scenario.

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As disaster after disaster unfolded, trade in Europe ground to a halt. But thankfully, better times were ahead. Looking at the ice samples, researchers were able to pinpoint 640 as the year in which things began to turn around. Around that time, they discovered, the amount of lead in the atmosphere sharply rose.

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What, you might ask, does lead have to do with things? And why would pollution be a sign of improving fortunes? Well, metalworkers in the 6th century would process the metal to produce silver. And so this increase indicates that the economy was finally beginning to restart after more than 100 years of stagnation. Then, 20 years later, there was another spike in production, which represented an important development in the medieval world.

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Around this time, historians believe, silver began to emerge as the dominant metal in the marketplaces of the Middle Ages. Previously gold had been used for trade, but as it became scarce merchants had to source an alternative. And hundreds of years later, this shift would be indicated by the increasing levels of lead deposits buried deep within the ice.

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“It shows the rise of the merchant class for the first time,” Nottingham University archaeologist Christopher Loveluck told Science. But despite the many insights that this study has given us into the past, there’s one conclusion that seems to have stuck. The year 536, according to the experts, was the worst that there has ever been.

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After the results of the study were released, some commenters drew parallels between the events of 536 and the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815. Like the earlier disaster, this cataclysmic event sent a thick cloud of ash up into the atmosphere, where it slowly spread across the planet.

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In a terrifying repeat of the 536 disaster, this cloud of ash blocked out the sun and cooled the plnet. And as the weather went haywire, crops were ruined and food became scarce once again. The consequences were so dire that 1816 was dubbed the Year Without a Summer.

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Just as the horrors of 536 inspired Prococpius and Cassiodorus to put pen to paper, so too did the Year Without a Summer leave its own legacy behind. After all, it was while housebound during the terrible weather that Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein. And it was the same ill-fated holiday period that saw her contemporary Lord Byron pen Darkness, a poem that recounts an eerie world without a sun.

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Back in the 21st century, researchers are excited about the results of the ice core study. Speaking to Science, University of Oklahoma historian Kyle Harper explained that the data “give[s] us a new kind of record for understanding the concatenation of human and natural causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire – and the earliest stirrings of this new medieval economy.”

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Moving forwards, the team plans to study Icelandic and European lakes in the hope of recovering more evidence from the 536 eruption. With this, they could pinpoint the exact site of the volcano – and try to establish the reasons for the disaster having such a cataclysmic effect. In the meantime, it seems, we should perhaps not be so quick to dismiss each year as “the worst yet.”

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