Jan 7, 2022

Worst. Year. Ever.

What was the worst year to be alive on planet Earth?  

We make the case for 536 AD, which set off a cascade of catastrophes that is almost too horrible to imagine. A supervolcano. The disappearance of shadows. A failure of bread. Plague rats. Using evidence painstakingly gathered around the world - from Mongolian tree rings to Greenlandic ice cores to Mayan artifacts - we paint a portrait of what scientists and historians think went wrong, and what we think it felt like to be there in real time. (Spoiler: not so hot.)  We hear a hymn for the dead from the ancient kingdom of Axum, the closest we can get to the sound of grief from a millennium and a half ago.

The horrors of 536 make us wonder about the parallels and perpendiculars with our own time: does it make you feel any better knowing that your suffering is part of a global crisis? Or does it just make things worse?"

Thanks to reporter Ann Gibbons whose Science article "Eruption made 536 ‘the worst year to be alive" got us interested in the first place. 

In case you want to learn more about 536, here are some other sources: 

Timothy P. Newfield, “The Climate Downturn of 536-50” in the Palgrave Handbook on Climate History

Dallas Abbott et al., “What caused terrestrial dust loading and climate downturns between A.D. 533 and 540?”

Joel Gunn and Alesio Ciarini (editors), “The A.D. 536 Crisis: A 21st Century Perspective”

Antti Arjava, “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE in the Mediterranean Sources” 

And for more on the composer Yared, watch Meklit Hadero’s TED talk The Unexpected Beauty of Everyday Sounds”

Credits: This episode was reported by Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller, and produced by Simon Adler.  With sound and music from Simon Adler and Jeremy Bloom.

Special Thanks: Thanks to Joel Gunn, Dallas Abbott, Mathias Nordvig, Emma Rigby, Robert Dull, Daniel Yacob, Kay Shelemey, Jacke Phillips, Meklit Hadero, and Joan Aruz.

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LATIF NASSER: Hey, I'm Latif Nasser. This is Radiolab.

LULU MILLER: I'm getting all settled. Okay.


LATIF: And to kick off this new year, our very first episode of 2022, Jad and Lulu and I were supposed to have a conversation about what our favorite things were from the last year. Like, books and movies, that kind of thing.

JAD: Okay.

LULU: Let's do it.

LATIF: But I have brought you both here with a ruse. I mean, we may do favorite things but that's not what I'm prepared to do today.

JAD: Wait, so that was a fake-out?

LULU: I prepared my favorite things!

LATIF: I'm hijacking you both.

LULU: Ooh, okay!

JAD: [laughs]

LATIF: Okay, you ready?

JAD: Yeah.

LULU: Very.

LATIF: So we are starting a new year. It feels kinda like the last two sort of blur together, and I'm constantly thinking, like, which was worse: 2020 or 2021? But then that took me to a different place which is like, what was the worst year ever?

JAD: Hmm.

LATIF: Not in recent memory, but in human history. Like, was there an objectively worst year to be a person alive on planet Earth?

JAD: My mind goes to parameter questions.

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Okay, great.

JAD: When is the boundaries?

LATIF: So maybe let's say the worst year in recorded history.

JAD: Got it. And then "worst?" Do you have, like, an operating definition for that?

LATIF: Maybe something that, like—that hit a lot of people in a way that if we were alive then and we had a choice between living then and living now, we would say "Yes, please. 2020 or 2021, please."

LULU: Hmm. You are a sick, sick mind, Latif.

LATIF: Well, I admit it's kind of a dark thought to have, but I was thinking about it in a kind of positive way. Like, the worst year in human history, if I can pin that down, I'll at least know that 2022 is almost certainly not gonna be as bad as that. And then I'll feel better about that.

LULU: And, like, whatever's ahead?

LATIF: And whatever's ahead.

LULU: Okay.

JAD: [laughs]

LATIF: So fully embracing the suck that is 2020 and 2021, what year would you pit up against it to say "This is a worthy adversary?"

JAD: I was thinking Pompeii.

LULU: The Black Death.

JAD: Yeah, that's gotta be top five. At least if you're, like—if you're just gonna focus on Europe. Top five.

LULU: You could do 1939.

JAD: Crusades. Wasn't that the 12th century?

LATIF: Crusades.

LULU: 1781.

JAD: Mongolian invasion.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

JAD: Which was actually—there are some really good things that came out of that. So—so, you know, hmm.

LATIF: I mean, you could say, like, 1492 from the American perspective.

JAD: Yes! Yes!

LULU: I recently came across this thing that in 1100 AD, the moon disappeared for a lot of the year.

JAD: It disappeared?

LULU: So I think that would be ...

JAD: Hmm.

LULU: ... terrifying as either someone who is spiritual or isn't.

JAD: Yeah.

LATIF: Mm-hmm. This is very interesting because you're bringing up a lot of stuff that I'm gonna bring up, too.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: But so okay. So the year, the year that I think I want to make a case that this—that this is the worst year in human history is 536 AD.

LULU: 536.

JAD: Whoa!

LULU: Okay. All right, what's happening in the world in 536?

LATIF: Okay. So just a quick picture of what the world looked like around the 530s: a few hundred million humans on planet Earth or thereabouts. The Roman Empire, you know, fully flowered, then it fractured into two. A similar thing had happened in China. It also fractured. It is the classic period of the Mayan civilization in Central America. So these are like societies. These are real societies, you know, with major cities and sewage systems and music scenes and stuff like that. Like, it's like we're not quite in the modern world, but we're in, like, in a world we recognize.

LULU: Okay, so toilets and—toilets and lutes.

LATIF: Basically, yeah. Okay, so what happens in 536 is not particularly clear. The leading theory is a volcanic eruption.

LULU: Hmm.

JAD: So this is a singular eruption, or is it a string of them?

LATIF: Almost certainly a string of them, but at least one of them was enormous. Unclear where this eruption happened exactly, but spewed out ash and sulfates and even tiny bits of glass into the stratosphere.

JAD: Wow.

LATIF: Where it circulated around the Earth. But there's—there's actually—there's another thing that happened, there's kind of an extra twist, which is that I spoke to this one scholar and what she thinks happened was that a few years prior, Halley's Comet passed by Earth and basically whipped us with its tail. And so the debris from that tail entered our atmosphere, broke up in the night sky, and you could actually see it twinkling.

JAD: Can you imagine if the two things were separate events but happened on the same day. Can you imagine that?

LATIF: That would be crazy. That would be ama—or it could have been something completely different that triggered all this. But this is, like, best guesses. So whether it was the volcanic sort of plume or whether it was the comet, like, debris, it creates this thing they call a dust veil over the Earth. And that triggers other strange regional weather patterns including dust storms which cause even more dust. So in November and December of 536 in the Chinese city of Nanjing, there's a report from the city that said, quote, "Yellow dust rained down like snow. It could be scooped up in handfuls."

JAD: Wow!

LATIF: And that lasts from February, 536 to June, 537. So a year-and-a-half basically of solid winter.

LULU: Ooh!

JAD: Wow.

JAD: That's Game of Thrones shit right there.

LATIF: Yeah. It's basically the coldest decade in the last 2,000 years. And that triggers, like, massive crop failures and, you know, mass famine. So in Ireland in 536 and then also in 539, it's written in their annals that they have a quote, "failure of bread."

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: Similar food shortages are documented in Korea, Japan. In China it gets so bad by the 540s that in one area north of the Yellow River, seven or eight out of every ten people died. And because the crops had failed, allegedly, survivors were forced to eat the corpses of the dead.

LULU: No! No!

JAD: Oh my God!

LATIF: One of the places where this hit worst was Scandinavia. 75 percent of the villages that they excavate from around that time, like, you can tell that they were abandoned. Basically, it's like all these Nordic people are like, "Screw it. We're getting out of here." And then they get on their boats and then they, like, travel around the world and they ...

JAD: Wow. All you need now is like an alien invasion and—I don't know.

LATIF: Well, there's—I mean, there is more. Another issue with this massive dust veil that some people have speculated about is, like, people were not getting a lot of sunlight, so they're not creating vitamin D in their bodies. And vitamin D, among other things, helps boost your immune system to fight bacterial infections. And also you can imagine there are all these farms and fields with crops. The plants are dying, the rats in the field and the other animals that are living out there start coming to where the people have, you know, stores of grain or rice or whatever. And that's near where people are living. So now you have people who are hungry ...

LULU: Weaker immune system.

LATIF: ... possibly immune sort of compromised, meeting these filthy desperate animals like rats, who are carrying microscopic friends. So I'll let you guess what happens next.

JAD: God. Plagues.

LULU: The plague. All kinds of sicknesses.

LATIF: All kinds of sicknesses, yes, but especially one. So they call it Justinian's Plague. This is 541, so five years later. This plague spreads basically across all of Europe. It's commonly estimated to have killed tens of millions of people.

JAD: Wow. I'm trying to sort of construct a composite reality from all of these things. I mean, it must have been cold as hell.

LULU: There's rats and bacteria.

LATIF: Yeah. So these two geoscientists, Stothers and Rampino, they basically, like, comb through all of, like, anything written around that time all over the world to try to find, like, who talked about this and what did they say? And here's some of what they found. So this is a guy from Italy, statesman-y type person, Cassiodorus Senator. He says, "The sun seems to have lost its wanted light and appears of a bluish color."

JAD: Hmm.

LATIF: "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."


LATIF: "The moon too, even when its orb is full is empty of its natural splendor. We've had a spring without mildness and a summer without heat."

JAD: Wow.

LULU: That is bad.

LATIF: Yeah, that's bad.

JAD: That's really vivid.

LULU: And so vivid. The loss of the shadows?

JAD: Yeah.

LULU: Like, you feel the cold.

JAD: Yeah.

LATIF: Here's—here's another one that's, like, equally vivid, I think. So this is Mesopotamia. So this is around the area where Syria is now. A guy named Zacharias of Mytilene—probably pronouncing that wrong. "The winter was a severe one, so much so that from the large and unwanted quantity of snow the birds perished. There was distress among men from the evil things."

JAD: Oh my gosh. Wow!

LULU: What do you think the evil things means there?

LATIF: I don't know. I just left that in there because I did not know what that meant. And I was like, ooh, that's really dark and sinister.

LULU: Yeah.

JAD: Wow. But everybody, the entire globe is suffering through a 15-month winter.

LATIF: Unclear if it's the whole globe, but much of the northern hemisphere, for sure. But in Mayan history, there's this period. So this is the classic period of Mayan history, then there's this little mini-period that they call the classic period hiatus. And they have—the Mayan people would make these special decorative stone pillars to, like, mark history and what is going on in history at that time. Basically, they just pause making them.

LULU: What do you think the—okay, we kind of talked about what it felt like temperature wise, but like what do you think the world sounded like during these years? Or this year?

LATIF: Well, I guess with the birds dying, probably quieter.

JAD: Mm. Yeah.

LATIF: But what's left is—I don't know. I imagine, like, walking on dried grass. Like, that kind of sound, maybe? Like, you know, the little scurrying of the rat feet over the fallow field or whatever.

LULU: And then wind probably picks up if you don't have trees, lush plants to break it, right? So you probably get, like, [whistles]

JAD: Do you know what I keep thinking about? Is any singular human in this moment would be thinking about their own sorry state and their family and maybe their village.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

JAD: But that would be the sort of circumference of their awareness. They had no big picture. So, like ...

LATIF: I doubt anybody had a big picture of it.

JAD: Right. But I mean, we can see that it was a global catastrophe. And we see that about our own moment in a way that they couldn't. So I wonder if it would have felt like the worst year ever. So it's funny to think that, like, the awareness of the whole magnifies the misery and, like ...

LULU: Or the awareness of the whole maybe makes you feel less lonely about it. Like it's not just you.

JAD: Yeah, that's interesting.

LULU: I don't know.

JAD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LATIF: I wonder if there was someone who just, like, got on a horse and was like, "I'm gonna ride until, like, ..."

LULU: "I'm out of it?"

LATIF: "I get the sun back."

LULU: Yeah!

LATIF: And then they just kept riding and they never got back.

LULU: Totally come out of the cold and then, like, never gets there.

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: Yeah, I guess what—I guess what I keep thinking about suddenly is—given that I'm an old man now it's my sort of inherited birthright to complain about young people. There's just such a fixation on mental health amongst, you know, kids, right?

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: And I think "Thank God. That's amazing." But at the same time I think, "Wow, your lives are so great." You know what I mean? But then I think, does it feel great? Probably doesn't. Like, objectively, their lives are so much more comfortable than a life would have been in 536.

LATIF: Right.

JAD: But maybe by virtue of the expanded awareness that we all carry things don't feel good, you know? And so I guess that's what I was thinking about was like, what if we endured 536 now, right? Like, what if a comet and a volcano blew up? Can you imagine the wall-to-wall CNN and the tweeting and the retweeting and the constant, like, sharing of misery? It must feel like—it would feel like misery amplified in a way that it probably hasn't at any other time.

LULU: But the sharing, yes, there is misery amplified and that but, like, think about when the Italians made that video for us. Do you remember that?

LATIF: Oh, that singing and cheering and ...

LULU: This little message in a bottle of, like, take it seriously. Learn from us. Stay inside for a couple of weeks. It felt like that was a moment where the cross-planetary awareness allowed our best sides to try to come out.

LATIF: And let's work together. Yeah.

LULU: And let's work together. And, like, the kind of watching how different leaders approach it, and then being able to just look back and see what works. And then take strategies and make mistakes and learn and ...

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: The sharing and the solidarity allowed us to way more quickly collaborate.

LATIF: I mean, yeah. That is true but, like, okay, like, think back to 536, right? Probably most people alive on planet Earth at the time believed that what was happening, the horrors that were befalling them were coming from above. They were an act of God or gods. And then now what's going on, so much of what's going on, it feels like it's happening because of us. Like, something we're doing to ourselves and to each other. And sort of whether it is or not, like, it's like lab leak or China virus or South Africa variant or this person's not wearing a mask or that person didn't get a booster or whatever it is, and as much as the solidarity and stuff, like, that stuff also gets amplified on Twitter. I don't know. So it's like as much as you have the we're-all-in-this-together stuff, you also have the, like, it's all this person's fault. Let's scapegoat this person.

LULU: Yeah, that's true. I don't know. I'm big on the solidarity in the long run making it better. And it just seems like with all of that, I mean, it's just like, I'm officially stopping bitching about 2020. Like, I'm done.

JAD: [laughs] But does it make—okay. Okay. So that's sort of like—that's what I was sort of curious about. Does this—does knowing that people in 536—I mean, it's like, does it make you feel better about the last two years to know that in 536 it was a much worse year?

LATIF: It doesn't make me better so much as it makes me think, "Oh, like, there are more floors to fall through here. Like, we could fall. We have longer to fall.

JAD: Hmm.

LATIF: Like, I don't know if that makes me feel better to know that, but it definitely makes me not feel worse.

JAD: Okay. Okay.

LATIF: Because I'm saving the worse feelings for when—if and when it does get worse.

JAD: That's fair.

LULU: I just wanted to say what I—what you have left me with about knowing about that year, I just feel grateful I can go see my shadow.


JAD: Hmm.

LULU: And, like, that's what I'm gonna take the year ahead. That's what I'm gonna take into the year ahead is, like, well, if I can see my shadow, that means there's enough sun to just enjoy the basic warmth of that. And ...

LATIF: And there's ground beneath me that is not lava, yeah.

LULU: That's not lava.

LATIF: So going into the next year, at least we've got shadows and bread and ground to stand on.

LULU: Yeah. Do you guys remember my question?

JAD: That was—that was last year.

LULU: I know. It's old time.

LATIF: Yes. Yeah.

LULU: But do you remember what I got a little hung up on?

LATIF: Music.

LULU: Or I just couldn't ...

LATIF: You were excited to see ...

LULU: So before we leave you, one more thing. Because after Latif hit us with the horrors of that year, I was left with this question that just kept eating at me. So a little while later I called them both back up to add just one last little postcard from the year 536.

LULU: Yeah.

JAD: What was your question specifically? Was it: did the misery create a new genre, or ...?

LULU: I mean, my question was really just what was music like then? You know, what kind of music were people making and hearing that would have carried them through?


JAD: Hmm.

LULU: What did it actually sound like?

[phone rings]

LULU: So I did a little digging ...


LULU: Hello!

LULU: And I found someone who had a pretty interesting answer to that question—at least for one corner of the world.

LULU: Should I call you Cantor Sayum? Mogus?

MOGUS SAYUM: No. No, it's Mogus. Mogus.

LULU: Mogus.

LULU: So Mogus Sayum, he's a cantor in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Lives in Virginia now, but grew up in Ethiopia. And some of the musical traditions of his church, songs he sings literally every week ...


LULU: ... he says come from right around the 536 time, in what was the Kingdom of Axum.

MOGUS SAYUM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Only by the way ...

LULU: And in fact, he told me about one particular guy ...

MOGUS SAYUM: From Yared. Do you know Yared? The Yared histories?

LULU: St. Yared, who according to tradition was the person writing all this music.

MOGUS SAYUM: 1,600 years ago.

LULU: Now we don't know the extent to which the dust veil of 536 affected this area, and there is debate over the historical person Yared, but according to Mogus's tradition, it was right around the year 536 that Yared composed a brand new book of hymns called "Mawaset"


LULU: And what are the songs in that book about?

MOGUS SAYUM: Mawaset? Mawaset is when somebody dies you sing songs of Mawaset.

LULU: It's like a book of—it's songs for the dead?


LULU: Hmm.

JAD: Hmm.

LULU: Could—could you sing me just a little bit so I could hear?

MOGUS SAYUM: Oh, right now? It's okay?

LULU: Yeah!

MOGUS SAYUM: Okay. [singing]

LULU: Now again, it's impossible to know exactly how the chronology of these songs line up with the year 536, and also even how much of Yared's story is real or apocryphal. But what does seem likely is that if you were to walk into a church in Ethiopia about 1,500 years ago, and you were mourning someone ...

MOGUS SAYUM: [singing]

LULU: ... this is the kind of music that may be sung to you to honor that loss.

MOGUS SAYUM: [singing]

LULU: Wow. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for your time.

MOGUS SAYUM: All right. Thank you very much.

LULU: I appreciate it. Have a great—I hope—you know, happy new year, not Ethiopian New Year but boring old Gregorian New Year.

MOGUS SAYUM: You too. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

LULU: Bye.


LATIF: This episode was produced by Simon Adler with sound and music from Simon Adler and Jeremy Bloom. Special thanks to Dallas Abbott, Mathias Nordvig, Joel Gunn and reporter Ann Gibbons, whose article in Science on 536 got me interested in this in the first place.

LULU: Thanks also to Daniel Yacob, Kaye Shelemey, Jackie Phillips and Meklit Hadero, who is a fabulous singer-songwriter with a deep connection to St. Yared. I highly recommend you go check out her music. That's Meklit Hadero.

LATIF: If, by the way, you want to actually hear the conversation that Lulu and Jad and I were supposed to have about our favorite things from the last year, well that is actually going up right after this to our Lab members-only feed.

LULU: The Lab! And it's a fun conversation. I was so excited to share my little finds of the year with you. So if you do want to hear it, just join The Lab.

LATIF: Head over to Radiolab.org/TheLab to sign up.

LULU: Check it out, see if it's for you. Radiolab.org/TheLab.

LATIF: Thank you for listening. This is Radiolab. More light, non-catastrophic stories coming up from us soon and all through the next year, whatever it may bring.

[LAUREN: Hi. This is Lauren Bertram, calling from San Diego, California. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

[JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

[LAUREN: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tayna Chawla and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

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