Child Sacrifice at Carthage

In my article “On Elkenah as Canaanite El” I made an argument for understanding the idolatrous god “Elkenah” from the Book of Abraham as the Canaanite deity El. Part of my argument was linguistic, suggesting that the -kenah element of the name could = Canaan. This looks counterintuitive at first, but the usage in cuneiform texts from Tell El Amarna and Bogazkoy demonstrates that the second n in Hebrew kena’an is an affixational morpheme, not part of the name itself. So while letters originating in Canaan itself (Tyre and Byblos) use the second n, those originating in Syria or Mesopotamia do not (resulting in the normalized form kinahh-). I also point to sources that report that Phoenicia was formerly called Chna (Greek chi-nu-alpha), which appears to represent a continuity with the earlier cuneiform form of the name.

My second argument had to do with child sacrifice. Since the attempt to sacrifice the young Abraham is a key point of the book, the setting would appear to be in a religious culture that maintained such a practice. To me the clearest possibility for such a setting would be a Canaanite one. As I wrote,

“It was El among the gods who sacrificed his own chldren, Yadid and Mot. Classical sources and archaeological discoveries attest to human sacrifice in the continuum form Canaanite to Phoenician to Punic religion,[63] with the popularity of child sacrifice at Carthage being dependent on an El cult.”

[63] The Canaanites and the Phoenicians represent approximately the same culture. Scholars generally use the word Canaanite to refer to the period antedating roughly 1200 BC, and the word Phoenician to refer to the period thereafter. Punic derives from the Latin form of Phoenician and has special reference to Carthage, a Phoenician colony founded on the north coast of Africa in the ninth century BC.

So it was with particular interest that I opened up my latest copy of Biblical Archaeology Review to find Patricia Smith, “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell” 40/4 (July-August 2014): 54-56, 68.

Smith describes a study that she and colleagues did at the Carthage tophet (a tophet is an infant burial site).  We know from literary sources that child sacrifice was practiced at Carthage, but whether the archaeology supports that conclusion has been somewhat controversial. Smith’s team examined 342 tophet funerary urns dating from the eighth to the second centuries BCE. All contained incinerated remains. The majority were infants, the rest young animals, mainly sheep and goat. Typically an urn would contain the remains of one individual, but sometimes as many as three were in the same urn.

Studying the bones to estimate dates of death would be problematic, as they had cracked and warped due to incineration. But the teeth did enable the researchers to estimate age at death. As the teeth grow in length, the enamel and dentine increase in thickness, such that teeth at the same stage of development resemble one another in such measures.

First they had to determine the effect of incineration on the teeth, so they compared them with a control sample of non-incinerated teeth of the same type and length. Using a battery of methods, they found that the enamel and dentine in tophet teeth were consistently thicker for the same length compared to teeth in the control sample. Length meausurements in the tophet teeth consistently underestimated age by between four to six weeks, so they corrected age estimations accordingly.

Their findings? Most infant deaths at the Carthage tophet (67%) were of infants aged one to two months. This age distribution differs markedly from the characteristic of infant mortality profiles in past societies, or even present-day communities without access to modern medical care. That profile suggests 55% mortality by three months, with the death toll then constant thereafter over the following months. The Carthage results suggest infants selected for sacrifice in the one to two months range, with much less mortality coming from later months.

(Part of the article discusses a competing study that argued against child sacrifice, claiming most of these infancts died either prenatal or at birth, making them inappropriate objects of human sacrifice. This other team’s data were virtually identical to the Smith team’s, except that they had failed to take into account the incineration on the teeth and make the four to six week adjustment necessitated by that.)

There is a lot of human sacrifice that goes on in the Bible in a Canaanite context. (Indeed, I think the Akedah or binding of Isaac has a Canaanite background.) For us moderns it is simply inconceivable that we would allow our own children to be sacrificed as an offering to the god. But such practices were indeed a reality of the ancient world.


  1. “For us moderns it is simply inconceivable that we would allow our own children to be sacrificed as an offering to the god. But such practices were indeed a reality of the ancient world.”

    Huh. I guess progress has been a good thing after all — or am I only saying that because of a rotten brain/soul?

  2. Bryan H. says:

    Strong work.

  3. I didn’t think infants aged one to two months had teeth.

  4. Kevin, I really enjoy reading your material. Is there a place you announce or list your articles?

  5. Hedgehog says:

    Interesting article & post.

    Martin, teeth develop in the jaw prior to eruption.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Cody, for my previous blog posts click on my name under the Authors link at the top of the page.

    For prior print publications, see here:

    (That list is now pretty dated; at some point when I reach a critical mass of newer print publications I’ll publish a list of those here on the blog.)

  7. Kevin,

    Thanks for the link to that list. That’s what I was looking for.


  8. Thanks Kevin for the report on some new information about the practice of child sacrifice. As you mention, child sacrifice in one form or another was definitely a part of the broader culture of ancient Palestine and the broader Levant.

    But I have to say that I find the reading of Elkenah as “El of Canaan” unpersuasive, for several reasons. First, I don’t see any prima facie reason from within the text of the BoA, whether in its representation of history, culture, or ideas, to suppose that its names are fossilized remnants from an ancient historical context. Yes, child sacrifice existed in Canaan, but that by itself doesn’t tell us much or allow us to date the text to an ancient period. Child sacrifice has been associated with idolatry in the minds of civilized Westerners for a long time. In addition, the portrayal of child sacrifice in the BoA has very little in common with what we know about the practice in the Canaanite world.

    Second, the identification of Elkenah as the deity El is problematic, because if Abraham in fact ever existed, then it is virtual certainty that his family deity would have been El. El would not have been a foreign god to Abraham, to say nothing of a heathen or idolatrous god. He was the major deity of Palestine and existed in various local forms up through the end of the Iron Age. As the ancestry of biblical Yahweh, he is still the chief deity in one way or another of most bible believing religionists.

    Third, the reading of Elkenah you suggest is also complicated by the fact that it is not only to date unattested in any extant text, but is implausible as having ever existed as a live linguistic option, for the simple reason that El of Canaan would have been a highly ambiguous way of referring to the deity because of the common noun valence of the noun ‘el. In addition, I can see little reason why someone would resort to such a specifying name combination in the local religion of Palestine for an autobiographical text. Geographical epithets such as this were generally reserved for highly formal and elite political contexts.

    Finally, the second n on kena’an may be an affixational morpheme, but it is surely ancient. Because the BoA text stems from Abraham and a supposed Canaanite context, as well as the fact that it refers to the full name Canaan in multiple instances, I see no reason to assume an ancient Cuneiform spelling for kenah.

    These are just a few reasons; I could mention many more, e.g., the completely ahistorical and warped depiction of ancient polytheism (the ancestors worshiping a bevy of random idolatrous deities, which lead them to do evil); the association of the gods of the Chaldeans with the gods of the Egyptians; the incorrect association of Elkenah with a falcon (if he is indeed El); the emphasis on idolatry (idolatry is a very late concept; aniconism in an Israelite context may have originated only near the end of the Judean monarchy); the biblical claim that Abraham originated in Ur of the Chaldees is dubious, this claim is made only in P and some derivative literature; the earlier non-P claim is that he originated in southern Syria from Haran as an Aramean, etc.

    For more on child sacrifice in Israel, I would recommend Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, and Francesca Stavrakapoulou, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice, if you haven’t read them already.

  9. I visited the Carthage tophet a couple of years ago. It was so chilling. I was much more emotionally affected by such a long-ago tragedy than I expected to be. The effect was perhaps heightened by the gleefulness with which our Tunisian guide described the horrific practice as he pointed out the symbols for Baal Hammon carved above the little coffins.

    Having once suffered a miscarriage, it wasn’t difficult for me to at least consider the alternate theory that it was simply a special cemetery for beloved children who had died before or at birth. I walked out really hoping that the stories of large-scale infant sacrifice were mostly Roman slander against their long-standing Carthaginian rivals. I know it doesn’t change what really happened, but it makes me sad to read about that new study.

  10. Angela C says:

    Shoot! I missed this post when it came out a couple weeks ago. I too have been to the Carthage site and seen the urns, and it is a strange place to comprehend from our modern perspective. Our guide pointed out that later sacrifices were pets (and there is a row of pet urns) when people stopped being willing to sacrifice infants.

%d bloggers like this: