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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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.