A Carthaginian burial site was not for child sacrifice but was instead a graveyard for babies and fetuses, researchers now say.
A new study of the ancient North African site offers the latest volley in a debate over the primary purpose of the graveyard, long thought to be a place of sacred sacrifice.
"It's all very great, cinematic stuff, but whether that was a constant daily activity ― I think our analysis contradicts that," said study co-author Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh.
The city-state of Carthage was founded in the ninth century B.C., when Queen Dido fled Phoenicia (along the eastern Mediterranean shore) for what is now Tunis, Tunisia. The empire became a powerhouse of the ancient world and fought several wars against the Romans.
When archaeologists began excavating the ancient civilization last century, they found urns with the cremated remains of thousands of babies, young goats and lambs at a graveyard called the Tophet, which had been used from 700 to 300 B.C. At its peak, the Tophet may have been bigger than a football field and had nine levels of burials.
Based on historical accounts, scientists believed Carthaginians sacrificed children at the Tophet before burying them there. For instance, the Bible describes child sacrifice to the deity Baal, worshipped by a civilization in Carthage. A Greek and a Roman historian both recount gory tales from this time period in which of priests slit the throats of babies and tossed them into fiery pits, Schwartz said. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]
However, those accounts came from Carthage's enemies. "Some of this might have been anti-Carthaginian propaganda," Schwartz told LiveScience.
In 2010 Schwartz and his colleagues used dental remains from 540 individuals to argue that the site was not primarily for ritual child slaughter, and they reiterate that stance in this month's issue of the journal Antiquity. In the new article, the researchers cite several older studies to validate their methods for estimating infant ages from tooth fragments.
The team argues that many tooth fragments found at the Tophet were actually developing tooth buds from the jaws of fetuses and stillborn babies who could not have been live sacrifices. As evidence, they showed that half of the teeth lacked a sign of birth called the neonatal line. The stress of birth temporarily halts tooth development in newborns, creating a tiny, dark line in their tooth buds; however, the line doesn't form until a week or two after birth.
Other researchers still believe the Tophet was a place for sacred killing.
"This is not a regular cemetery; the age distribution suggests they were sacrificing infants at the age of 1 month," said Patricia Smith, an anthropologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Smith's team published a 2011 paper questioning Schwartz's dental analysis. The incredible heat and pressure generated during cremation usually erase the neonatal line, she said, so its absence isn't a reliable measure of age. Schwartz's team miscalculated how much teeth shrink in cremation, leading to an underestimate of infant ages, Smith argued.
Smith also doubts Carthage would have routinely cremated stillbirths or infants. Because of sky-high infant mortality rates, babies were probably not considered people until they were at least 1 or 2 years old. The Carthaginians chopped down most of their trees to plant crops and wouldn't have used the precious wood to burn babies, she said.
"The Carthaginians were seafarers; they needed wood for ships, they needed wood for cloth, they needed wood for their tools," she said.
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Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.