The lives of ancient humans remain a magnetic topic. To help piece together extinct cultures, behaviors, and origins, experts use two tools that sometimes provoke more debates than answers: physical evidence and theories. Scholarly debates can become so heated that only new discoveries can break the stalemates. However, sometimes, new “breakthroughs” are so controversial that they add more fuel to the fire.
10. Carthaginian Child Sacrifice
Most scholars dismiss ancient accounts of Carthaginian child sacrifice as propaganda invented by the Greeks or Romans. The Roman historian Diodorus described a horrific statue in Carthage where babies rolled down the idol’s hands into a pit of fire.
The debate over whether the Carthaginians killed their own offspring began in the early 20th century. Cemeteries discovered in Carthage held the cremated remains of babies, and more were found at other Carthaginian settlements in Sardinia and Sicily.
The tiny bones were arranged in urns in an identical manner to the sacrificed animals found on-site. Some babies and animals were interred in the same containers. The headstones made no mention of how the children died or their identities. Instead, inscriptions praised the gods for favors received or made requests for future aid.
Scholars who believe that the Carthaginians ritually murdered infants limit the practice to the elite classes since cremation was pricey. These researchers also feel that it didn’t happen regularly, but resistance from opposing colleagues remains staunch. The result is one of the most embittered debates to arise from classical archaeology.
9. Hobbit Ancestors
When the miniature human species was discovered in 2003, Homo floresiensis quickly earned the nickname “the hobbits.” They walked the Indonesian island of Flores around 54,000 years ago, and who came before them remains a heated bone of contention between anthropologists.
In 2010, a study tried to confirm or bust the leading belief that they evolved from the bigger Homo erectus. Previous researchers only investigated the hobbit’s skull and jaw. Since Homo erectus was the only other early hominid found in the area, the ancestor assumption grew.
The 2010 study also examined the limbs, shoulders, and teeth. What they found was odd. Evolution moves a species forward, but Homo floresiensiswas more primitive than its supposed ancestor.
The two didn’t link smoothly on the family tree, either. Instead, the hobbit appeared to be a sister species of Homo habilis, who dwelled in Africa 1.75 million years ago. Sister species share a common ancestor—in this case, one somewhere in Africa.
While the ancestor of Homo floresiensis remains unidentified, the research also found that Homo floresiensis is likely older than Homo habilis, making Homo floresiensis one of the earliest branches in the human story.