Over on Paleojudaica, Jim Davila points to a recent debate over the existence of child sacrifice among the Carthaginians (in ancient North Africa), with one recent native Tunisian archeologist trying to dispel the notion that the ancestors of the Tunisians sacrificed children. It is true that almost all ancient ethnographical references to human sacrifice are made by Greek or Roman (or other) authors in order to show how terrible and uncivilized the “barbarian” peoples were. In almost all cases these are standard mud-slinging stereotypes of the “other” along the lines of the accusations against Christians and the stories used in novels which I mentioned a couple of days ago. However, the case of the Phoenicians (and Carthaginians) is different. A substantial study of Carthaginian sacrifice (which I happen to have out of the library), discusses this in relation to the Mediterranean context and concludes among other things that:
a noteworthy absence of eyewitness accounts is characteristic of the ancient sources of human sacrifices and other ‘unnatural’ killings. Also characteristic is the tendency to attribute ongoing sacrifices to other people, but to assume that in one’s own group such acts took place only in the past, if at all. It is not possible to prove that most attested human sacrifices ever happened; in fact, they probably did not. Yet, at least for the Phoenicians [and hence Carthaginians], there is independent archaeological evidence that the accusations were not wholly false.
Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context (JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series, vol. 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p.149.
The interpretation of this archaeological evidence is precisely what the archeologists in the recent media report are debating.
UPDATE: More discussion of child sacrifice among the Phoenicians on N. S. Gill’s about.com ancient history site.