The Carthaginians And Human Sacrifice: Carthage Got A Bum Rap

The victors always write the history and the case of Carthage was no exception. Consider this from Wikipedia:

Later commentators have compared the accounts of child sacrifice in the Old Testament with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Ba‘al Hammon, the chief god of Carthage. Issues and practices relating to Moloch and child sacrifice may also have been overemphasized for effect. After the Romans finally defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in post-war propaganda to make their arch enemies seem cruel and less civilized.

A paper in PloS One calls the accounts of child sacrifice by Carthaginians into question.

The authors of the paper examined cremated remains in 348 burial urns containing 540 individuals (I posted a picture from this paper here). There are several issues involved:

Our objective was to address the following questions. Were all humans interred in the Tophet sacrificed? Whether sacrificed or merely cremated, how many individuals per event were involved (one, two, or en masse)? Regardless of number of individuals, was each treated with care from pre- to post-cremation? And, as inferred from passages in the Old Testament, were victims exclusively male?

Let’s look at these questions separately. How many individuals were there per event? Each urn contained burned bones from humans, animals, or both. Minimum number of individuals ranged from 1-7.

Were the victims all male? In practice this is a difficult question to answer. From the stand point of forensic anthropology it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the sex of sub-adult material. It is even harder to determine sex on fetal material. Not that there haven’t been attempts. Perhaps the most successful attempt was that of Schutkowski in a 1993 American Journal of Physical Anthropology article. Schutkowski was able to correctly sex a sample of know sex with an impressive amount of accuracy (and was more accurate on males than females). Schwartz et al used Schutkowski’s method on 70 ilia that were preserved enough to take the requisite measurements and came of with the following; 26 probably male, 1 questionably male, 38 probably female, 2 questionably female, and 3 were indeterminate. Assuming that these results are reasonably accurate, we can say that the Carthaginians were, bare minimum, not focusing on males for sacrifice.

Was each treated with care from pre- to post-cremation? This is a little harder to answer. The bones displayed an irregular burn pattern that Schwartz et al argue is consistent with a body placed on a funeral pyre. Schwartz et al also argue that there was no attempt to prevent comingling of remains from one cremation episode to the next so that if there was some separate or special treatment this did not continue beyond cremation.

Were they all sacrificed? Schwartz et al do not mention any signs of trauma and I am not sure that it would be observable given the state of the remains. However, there are other ways of looking at the question of child sacrifice. Schwartz et al were able to determine the ages of some of the skeletons based on measurements and on the relative state of tooth formation. They were not able to count and measure daily enamel cross-striations. Based on this the sample ranges from 2-12 months with most clustering between 2-5 months. In 24 specimens a neonatal line in 26 the neonatal line was absent. The authors conclude:

Consequently, if we include with the prenates those individuals who did not survive beyond one or even two weeks postpartum, we must conclude that a significant number of individuals could not have been sacrificed because they were either not alive or not yet old enough to be considered viable sacrificial entities…

Schwartz et al argue that the sample seen at the Tophet mirrors the profile of infant mortality seen in a lot of modern socities and end the paper with this:

In sum, while the Carthaginians may occasionally have practiced human sacrifice, as did other circum-Mediterranean societies …, our analyses do not support the contention that all humans interred in the Tophet had been sacrificed. Rather, it would appear that the Carthaginian Tophet, and by extension Tophets at Carthaginian settlements in general, were cemeteries for the remains of human prenates and infants who died from a variety of causes and then cremated and whose remains, sometimes on a catch-as-catch-can basis, interred in urns. Following widespread practice at this time in history, it is likely that at least some, if not all, of the cremated animal remains represent sacrificial offerings.

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5 Responses

  1. In the matter of the mingled human/non-human remains it may be a case of a pet being sacrificed to accompany the child in the afterlife.

  2. Yes, that is a good possibility as well.

  3. This ruins the very best part of Salammbo.

  4. Interesting, but IMO, does not overthrow the Roman reporting. Somehow I don’t see Cicero as an iron age Bush-Cheney.
    I got this to say: Cartago Delenda Est!

  5. What? You don’t think that after two hard fought wars and having the skirt scared off them by Hannibal in the second the Romans might have exaggerated Carthaginian vices just a bit?

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