New Research Suggests Carthage Baby Cemetery Not for Sacrificial Victims

One of the infamous characteristics of Ancient Carthage was, according to their Roman enemies, their prolific practice of child sacrifice. Many ancient historians mention the practice, the most colorful by Diodorus Siculus

Denis Jarvis; burial ground of Tophet

“There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.” Hist20.14.6

New research suggests that the child burials of Carthage may not in fact be evidence of the practice (or at least of it being wide-spread). Rather, they are burial sites for infants and fetuses that died as a result of premature birth. Infant mortality was high in the ancient world (in some cases, 40% of children died before reaching their fifth birthday). The loss of a child during pregnancy or birth was also a common occurrence.

Jeffrey Schwartz, Ph.D. asserts that the majority of burials found here represent children that died of natural causes and not from the horrific murder of infants to the God Ba’al.

To learn more about these findings, read the article at MSNBC or purchase the more extensive Academic Journal Article at Antiquity.

3 thoughts on “New Research Suggests Carthage Baby Cemetery Not for Sacrificial Victims

  1. Jim Wheeler

    A 40% infant mortality rate hardly seems compatible with an evolutionarily-viable species, but I can readily believe the figure for the bronze age. I suspect that was an aberration compared to the hunter-gatherer stage. My speculation would be:

    1. That large tribes, a.k.a. cities would be a much more septic environment than small ones.
    2. That large tribes would be more likely to engender extreme religious practices than the simple animism likely to obtain in the small groups.

    Can anybody throw more light on this?

    1. Jennifer Carey Post author

      Yes, cities are always a more toxic environment due to issues such as cramped living, communicable disease, human waste, etc. People living in ancient cities also tended to have very poor diets (subsisting off of one type of food) and thus often suffered from vitamin and mineral deficiencies at very high levels.
      Keep in mind, that at this time, people had 8-10 children in order to compensate for the high loss in the hopes that 2-3 of them would make it to adulthood. In Ancient Rome, we have numerous families that go extinct because none of their children make it to adulthood. This is why they legalized adult adoption.
      Tribal, small communities have far less disease. Pox diseases, for example, require a population 20,000 people living within 10 days travel of one another in order to survive. Small, hunter-gatherer tribes are not conducive to supporting a number of communicable diseases. Also, hunter-gatherers tend to have healthier, more varied diets due to their subsistence patterns.
      Also the 40% rate is on the highest end. We only tended to see those numbers during times of extreme. However, 25-30% was not abnormal.
      Things like childhood inoculations, modern surgery, antibiotics, city-planning, waste disposal, etc have drastically reduced death and disease amongst young children.


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