The warming trend over the last century in the northern hemisphere (NH) was interrupted by cooling from AD 1940 to 1975, a period during which the southern hemisphere experienced pronounced warming. The cause of these departures from steady warming at multidecadal timescales are unclear; the prevailing explanation is that they are driven by non-uniformity in external forcings but recent models suggest internal climate drivers may play a key role. Paleoclimate datasets can help provide a longterm perspective. Here we use tree-rings to reconstruct New Zealand mean annual temperature over the last 550 years and demonstrate that this has frequently cycled out-of-phase with NH mean annual temperature at a periodicity of around 30–60 years. Hence, observed multidecadal fluctuations around the recent warming trend have precedents in the past, strongly implicating natural limate variation as their cause. We consider the implications of these changes in understanding and modelling future climate change.