Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?

Recent publications survey the evidence at Phoenician tophets

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


 
“But with full knowledge and understanding [the Carthaginians] offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds.”

—Plutarch, Moralia II.171C

The excavated Tophet of Sulcis at Sant’Antioco in Sardinia. Photo: Josephine Quinn.

One of the most debated questions in the study of the ancient world is whether or not the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice—more specifically, the sacrifice of infants. Plutarch and other ancient Greek and Roman authors reported that the Carthaginians vowed their own children to the gods as sacrificial offerings. The discovery of extramural open-air enclosures—called tophets—containing urns of cremated infants and animals seemed to corroborate the practice. The idea that the Carthaginians ritually sacrificed their children had been accepted in scholarship until the 1970s, when a growing number of academics began to doubt the practice.

Now, studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity have responded to recently renewed criticisms—and have provided comprehensive evidence that the Carthaginians really did sacrifice their own children.

Who Were the Carthaginians?

Carthage—located in modern-day Tunisia—came to be the most powerful city of all the Phoenician colonies established in the Mediterranean between the ninth and sixth centuries. Carthage began to exert control over settlements in western Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands in the sixth century, developing a maritime empire with its strong naval force. In the mid-third century, Carthage and Rome engaged in a series of fierce battles—known as the Punic Wars—over control of the western Mediterranean. Roman statesman Cato the Elder reportedly ended each senate meeting by saying “Carthago delenda est”—Carthage must be destroyed. By the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.E., Rome had indeed crushed Carthage.
 


 
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices across the Mediterranean world.
 

 

Carthaginian Infant Sacrifice

At the Tophet of Carthage and elsewhere, grave markers bear Punic inscriptions that, according to the Xella et al. study, are of a votive—not funerary—nature. Photo: Josephine Quinn.

Archaeological excavations in North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia have uncovered tophets on the outskirts of at least nine Phoenician settlements—one of the largest at Carthage itself. Stone stelae, which marked the burial sites of some terracotta urns, bore inscriptions that spoke of offerings to the Punic gods Baal Hamon and Tanit. Do these tophets provide evidence of sacrificial offerings as described by numerous ancient authors?

Dissenting belief holds that the Phoenician tophets were merely cemeteries for children. A well-known study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers analyzed the teeth and skeletal remains from the Carthage Tophet and determined that the evidence reflected normal mortality rates of infants in antiquity. The urns contained, so the study concluded, the charred remains of infants who died of natural causes, such as infectious diseases.

Two papers recently published in Antiquity responded to the renewed debates and restated what the scholars believe to be overwhelming evidence for the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice. Teeth and skeletal analysis led by Patricia Smith and colleagues from the Hebrew University and Harvard University demonstrates that the evidence from the Carthage Tophet shows a preference for a specific age-range—under three months old—which, moreover, does not correlate with the expected pattern of mortality rates in antiquity. A second paper presented by an international team of researchers led by Paolo Xella of the National Research Council in Rome summarized the abundant textual, epigraphic and archaeological evidence for Carthaginian infant sacrifice.
 


 
Read more about the teeth and skeletal analysis of the Carthage Tophet remains led by BAR author Patricia Smith.
 

 
Oxford researcher Josephine Quinn, coauthor of the Xella et al. study, commented on the value of collaborative research in an email to Bible History Daily:

The publication of the Harvard-Hebrew University team’s excellent work alongside our own international collaboration highlights the importance of bringing all possible information to bear on historical questions, be it textual, material, linguistic, scientific or comparative. No one can become an expert in every field relevant to the study of the ancient world, but we can all learn enough about other disciplines to be able to talk to each other and work together on interpretations that make more than the sum of our individual specialisms.

As the recent papers in Antiquity demonstrate, cross-disciplinary research—from the scientific analysis of the human remains to the consideration of the broader historical context in which they reside—is critical to understanding Phoenician tophets and rituals.

Read the Oxford University press release.
 


 
This Bible History Daily article was originally published on February 5, 2014.
 

 

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  • Hilary says

    Most cultures have ways of dealing with unwanted human fertility. The ancient Greeks exposed unwanted children, and while a few may have been picked up and raised as slaves or adoptees, the usual outcome of exposure must surely have been death. Even today, despite modern family planning, some cities have “baby hatches” where unwanted infants can be discreetly placed, no questions asked.

    I find it interesting that the practice of exposure is rarely discussed and seems to attract much less revulsion than that of sacrifice. It seems to me that the Phoenician/Carthagian mindset may have been that if one is to dispose of an unwanted child, this should be done with dignity and in honour of one’s God, rather than just casually throwing away. This matches the ancient attitude to killing one’s domestic animals for food – permissible only in the context of sacrifice and formal religious ritual. Sacrificing, rather than simply killing or exposing and leaving to die, recognises that life is valued rather than that it is not.

  • Dawn says

    In Leviticus 27:1-8 God is directing the Israelite people to vow everyone in their house, above age 1 month, to His service. God never said that an infants under 1 month are unredeemable.

  • Maurice says

    it surprises me from People who suppose to have a great knoledge about the Phoenicians and the Canaanites and they don’t know that These are the same People.And they are no stock and where no nomades or tribes but a civilised People living in towns . Additionaly the Pre-Egyptians are no ancestors of the Israelites since Abraham came from UR in Mesopotamia and they were Nomades.

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