A historian and archaeologist by the name of Michael McCormick recently recounted some of the worst years to be alive. Reasons for these three worst years ever are owed largely to pollution, famine, and disease. These years do not take war into consideration – just the overall quality of life during world-changing events for humans across most of the world. All of the top 3 worst years to be alive happened in AD, or CE, whichever you’d like to use. These are within the last 2,018 years, and not before.
NOTE: Other than the number 1 spot, the (two) other entries on this list were not put in one order of the other by the researchers and scientists involved in this most recent bit of historical science. They’re each recounted as some of the worst years to be alive by McCormick and crew in a talk about their research this month.
3. The year 541
The “Justinian” bubonic plague is believed to have arrived first in the Roman port of Pelusium, Egypt. This quickly-spreading monstrosity killed an estimated 50 million people. Bubonic plague likely transformed into the Black Death by the time of the arrival of the next entry on our list. As you’ll see in the number 1 spot, 541 was also affected by the Iceland-based volcanic eruption of 540. Summer temperatures dropped by 1.4°C – 2.7°C in Europe.
2. The year 1346
In the year 1346, the Black Death gained some major steam, rolling across Europe and Eurasia, killing a massive number of people. Estimates currently sit between 75 to 200 million deaths in around a half-decade. This is marked in McCormick and crew’s research by a near complete vanishing of lead pollution in the ice from 1349 to 1353.
1. Worst year ever: 536
The year 536 “was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” said McCormick. According to his team’s study, a volcanic eruption in Iceland was the primary cause of a series of absolutely crappy events around the world.
A series of events caused a global change in temperature and a “mysterious fog” to hang over much of Eurasia. Some scientists suggest an asteroid 640 meters in diameter crashed into Australia, carving out the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Snowfall in August in China, resulting in significant delays in crop harvest. Drought in Peru, Irish famine, average temperatures throughout Europe and China decrease a significant amount. Ancient writers and historians such as Prokopios, Cassiodorus, John Lydos, all refer to “the dark cloud” that hung over Europe starting in this year.*
According to John of Ephesus, in the year 536 “[the] sun’s rays were visible for only two or three hours a day.” Human life worldwide was affected again in the years 540 and 547 by additional volcanic eruptions in Iceland – it was a crappy time to be alive, to be sure.
*See the JSTOR entry for “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE in the Mediterranean Sources” by Antti Arjava in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 59 (2005), pp. 73-94.
00. The Study
If you want to learn more about the data that lead to this list – in a very round-about way – head over to the journal Antiquity. There, the full study I’m referring to goes by the name “Alpine ice-core evidence for the transformation of the European monetary system, AD 640–670.” This study can be found with code doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2018.110.