Abstract

Climatic changes during the first half of the Common Era have been suggested to play a role in societal reorganizations in Europe1,2 and Asia3,4. In particular, the sixth century coincides with rising and falling civilizations1,2,3,4,5,6, pandemics7,8, human migration and political turmoil8,9,10,11,12,13. Our understanding of the magnitude and spatial extent as well as the possible causes and concurrences of climate change during this period is, however, still limited. Here we use tree-ring chronologies from the Russian Altai and European Alps to reconstruct summer temperatures over the past two millennia. We find an unprecedented, long-lasting and spatially synchronized cooling following a cluster of large volcanic eruptions in 536, 540 and 547 AD (ref. 14), which was probably sustained by ocean and sea-ice feedbacks15,16, as well as a solar minimum17. We thus identify the interval from 536 to about 660 AD as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Spanning most of the Northern Hemisphere, we suggest that this cold phase be considered as an additional environmental factor contributing to the establishment of the Justinian plague7,8, transformation of the eastern Roman Empire and collapse of the Sasanian Empire1,2,5, movements out of the Asian steppe and Arabian Peninsula8,11,12, spread of Slavic-speaking peoples9,10 and political upheavals in China13.

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Acknowledgements

B. Bramanti, B. M. S. Campbell, S. M. Hsiang and C. Oppenheimer kindly commented on earlier versions of this article. D. Galvan helped with the radiocarbon measurements (within the WSL-internal COSMIC project), L. Hellmann provided technical support for Fig. 4 (through the E. Mayr-Stihl Foundation), and D. Zanchettin contributed insight on positive feedback loops. U.B. was supported by the Czech project ‘Building up a multidisciplinary scientific team focused on drought’ (No. CZ.1.07/2.3.00/20.0248). J.O.K. was supported by the European Research Council (COEVOLVE 313797), and J.J., S.W. and J.L. acknowledge the German Science Foundation project ‘Attribution of forced and internal Chinese climate variability in the common era’. This study was conducted within the interdisciplinary and international framework of the PAGES initiative (Euro-Med 2k and Asia-2k), which in turn received support from the US and Swiss National Science Foundations, US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Tree-ring data from the Altai were collected and measured through support from the Russian Science Foundation (project 14-14-00295). Historical evidence was extracted from work ongoing at SoHP, Harvard University.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, CH-8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • Ulf Büntgen
  2. Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • Ulf Büntgen
    •  & Michael Sigl
  3. Global Change Research Centre AS CR, CZ-61300 Brno, Czech Republic

    • Ulf Büntgen
  4. Siberian Federal University, RU-660041 Krasnoyarsk, Russia

    • Vladimir S. Myglan
    •  & Alexander V. Kirdyanov
  5. Department of History, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist
  6. Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist
  7. Initiative for the Science of the Human Past (SoHP), Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Michael McCormick
  8. Institute for Advanced Study, School of Historical Studies, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Nicola Di Cosmo
  9. Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, CH-5232 Villigen, Switzerland

    • Michael Sigl
  10. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, DE-20146 Hamburg, Germany

    • Johann Jungclaus
  11. Institute for Coastal Research, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, DE-21502 Geesthacht, Germany

    • Sebastian Wagner
  12. Navarino Environmental Observatory, GR-24001 Messinia, Greece

    • Paul J. Krusic
  13. Department of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University, DE-55099 Mainz, Germany

    • Jan Esper
  14. University of Lausanne, Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Jed O. Kaplan
  15. Department of Linguistics and Information Sciences, University of Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Michiel A. C. de Vaan
  16. Department of Geography, Justus Liebig University, DE-35390 Giessen, Germany

    • Jürg Luterbacher
  17. Laboratory for Ion Beam Physics, ETHZ, CH-8093 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Lukas Wacker
  18. Chair of Forest Growth, Albert-Ludwigs University, DE-79106 Freiburg, Germany

    • Willy Tegel
  19. VN Sukachev Institute of Forest SB RAS, RU-660036 Krasnoyarsk, Russia

    • Alexander V. Kirdyanov

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Contributions

U.B. designed the study, together with M.M., and U.B. performed most of the analyses with support from all authors. V.S.M. and A.V.K. conducted fieldwork in the Russian Altai and developed the corresponding tree-ring chronologies. M.M., N.D.C., J.O.K., M.A.C.d.V. and F.C.L. added historical insight. J.J. and S.W. provided model output, and L.W. measured and analysed 14C. F.C.L. compiled multi-proxy LALIA evidence for the Northern Hemisphere. U.B. wrote the paper together with F.C.L., M.M., N.D.C., P.J.K., J.E., J.L. and W.T. All authors edited the various manuscript versions and contributed to long-lasting discussions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ulf Büntgen.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2652