Infanticide is the practice of someone intentionally causing the death of an infant. Often it is the mother who commits the act, but criminology recognizes various forms of non-maternal child murder. In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible, whereas in most modern societies the practice is considered immoral and criminal. Nonetheless, it still takes place — in the Western world usually because of the parent's mental illness or violent behavior, and in some poor countries as a form of population control, sometimes with tacit societal acceptance. Female infanticide is more common than the killing of male offspring due to sex-selective infanticide.
In the United Kingdom, the Infanticide Act defines "infanticide" as a specific crime equivalent to manslaughter that can only be committed by the mother intentionally killing her own baby during the first twelve months of its life outside the womb. The broader notion of infanticide, as described below, is the subject matter of this article.
Infanticide throughout history and pre-history
The practice of infanticide has taken many forms. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as the one practiced in ancient Carthage, may be only the most notorious example in the ancient world. Regardless of the cause, throughout history infanticide has been common. Anthropologist Laila Williamson noted:
Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.
A frequent method of infanticide in ancient Europe and Asia was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to die by exposure. In the Oceania tribes infanticide was carried out by suffocating the infant, while in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in the Inca Empire it was carried out by sacrifice (see below).
Paleolithic and Neolithic
Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. Joseph Birdsell believes in infanticide rates of 15-50% of the total number of births in prehistoric times. Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15-20%. Both believe that high rates of infanticide persisted until the development of agriculture. Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents in the Paleolithic.
In ancient history
Child sacrifice, the ritualistic killing of children in order to please supernatural beings, was far more common in ancient history than in present times.
In the New World
Archaeologists have uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice at several locations. Some of the best attested examples are the diverse rites which were part of the religious practices in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.
Skeletons of the newborn, associated with sacrificial offerings, have been found at El Manatí in Mexico, presumably an Olmec ritual. In 2005 a mass grave of newborn children was found in the Maya region of Comalcalco. There are also skulls suggestive of child sacrifice dating the classic Maya periods. Child sacrifice was performed as well in the Teotihuacan culture, including the famous Pyramid of the Sun. The Toltecs also sacrificed children: in 2007 archaeologists analyzed the remains of decapitated children found buried together with a figurine of Tlaloc, dated 950 to 1150 CE. According to Bernardino de Sahagún, Tlaloc required the tears of young children to wet the earth. Children cried before the Aztec infanticidal ritual. Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children in the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, located at the center of what now is Mexico City. The Incas also practiced sacrifice of young children. They killed them by strangulation or by a blow to the head. In North America, the Pawnee sacrificed a young girl.
In the Old World
Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Infants were offered to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage "[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith." Besides the Carthaginians, other Phoenicians, and the Canaanites, Moabites and Sepharvites offered their first-born as a sacrifice to their gods.
Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to their gods. Charred bones of thousands of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites in modern times. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns. It is estimated that child sacrifice was practiced for centuries in the region. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet (from the Hebrew taph or toph, to burn) by the Canaanites, ancestors of the Carthaginians, and by some Israelites. Writing in the 3rd century BCE, Kleitarchos, one of the historians of Alexander the Great, described that the infants rolled into the flaming pit. Diodorus Siculus wrote that babies were roasted to death inside the burning pit of the god Baal Hamon, a bronze statue.
Greece and Rome
The historical Greeks considered barbarous the practice of adult and child sacrifice. However, exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it. A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 BCE, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
- "Know that I am still in Alexandria. [...] I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it."
In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to death by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374 CE, but offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted.
According to mythological legend, Romulus and Remus, twin infant sons of the war god, Mars, survived near-infanticide after being tossed into the Tiber River. According to the mythology, they were raised by wolves and later founded the city of Rome.
Although there are many instances in the Bible of ancient Hebrews sacrificing their children to heathen gods (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3 & 17:17, 30-31 & 21:6 & 23:4, 10; Jeremiah 7:31-32 & 19:5 & 32:35; Ezekiel 16: 20-21, 36; Judges 11:31), Judaism prohibits infanticide. Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews "regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children." Josephus, whose works give an important insight into first-century Judaism, wrote that God "forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward."
The Mosaic laws expressly forbade the Jews to offer sacrifices to Moloch. "You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God" (Lev. 18:21)..
Years later, the practice existed among the Jews as reported by the prophet, Jeremiah, whose writings date to the period around 629 - 585 B.C.
And they built the high places of the Ba’al, which are in the valley of Ben-hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech; which I did not command them, nor did it come into my mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah, 32:35)
Pagan European tribes
In his book Germania, Tacitus wrote that the ancient Germanic tribes enforced a similar prohibition. He found such mores remarkable and commented: "[The Germani] hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child." Modern scholarship differs. John Boswell believed that in ancient Germanic tribes unwanted children were exposed, usually in the forest. "It was the custom of the [Teutonic] pagans, that if they wanted to kill a son or daughter, they would be killed before they had been given any food."
In his highly influential Pre-historic Times, John Lubbock described burnt bones indicating the practice of child sacrifice in pagan Britain.
Christianity rejected infanticide. The Teachings of the Apostles or Didache said "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born." The Epistle of Barnabas stated an identical command. So widely accepted was this teaching in Christendom that apologists Tertullian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr and Lactantius also maintained that exposing a baby to death was a wicked act. In 318 CE Constantine I considered infanticide a crime, and in 374 CE Valentinian I mandated to rear all children (exposing babies, especially girls, was still common). The Council of Constantinople declared that infanticide was homicide, and in 589 CE the Third Council of Toledo took measures against the Spanish custom of killing their own children.
Whereas theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents. According to William L. Langer, exposure in the Middle Ages "was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference". At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river even in day light.
Child sacrifice was practiced by the Gauls, Celts and the Irish. "They would kill their piteous wretched offspring with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood around Crom Cruaich", a deity of pre-Christian Ireland.
In Russia, peasants sacrificed their sons and daughters to the pagan god Perun. Although Church law forbid infanticide, it used to be practiced. Some rural people threw children to the swine. In Medieval Russia secular laws did not deal with what, for the church, was a crime. The Svans killed the newborn females by filling their mouths with hot ashes.
In Kamchatka, babies were killed and thrown to the dogs. American explorer George Kennan noted that among the Koryaks, a Mongoloid people of north-eastern Siberia, infanticide was still common in the 19th century. One of the twins was always sacrificed.
Marco Polo, the famed explorer, saw newborns exposed in Manzi. China's society promoted gendercide. Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BCE, who developed a school of law, wrote: "As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death." Among the Hakka people, and in Yunnan, Anhwei, Szechwan, Jiangxi and Fukien a method of killing the baby was to put her into a bucket of cold water, which was called "baby water".
Since feudal Japan the common slang for infanticide was "mabiki" which means to pull plants from an overcrowded garden. It has been estimated that 40% of newborn babies were killed in Kyushu. A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby's mouth and nose. Mabiki persisted in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
India and Pakistan
Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in India. According to Firishta, as soon as a female child was born she was hold "in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death". The practice of female infanticide was also common among the Kutch, Kehtri, Nagar, Gujarat, Miazed, Kalowries in India inhabitants, and also among the Sind in Pakistan.
It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.
Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, which practiced it during severe famine. Others state that "female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time" (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.
On the other hand, a manual of Islamic law certified by Al-Azhar as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy says that "retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right." However, "not subject to retaliation" is "a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring's offspring."
In Africa some children were killed because of fear that they were an evil omen or because they were considered unlucky. Twins were usually put to death in Arebo; as well as by the Nama Hottentots of South West Africa; in the Lake Victoria Nyanza region; by the Tswana in Portuguese East Africa; among the Ilso and Ibo people of Nigeria; and by the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. The Kikuyu, Kenya's most populous ethnic group, practiced ritual killing of twins. Lucien Lévy-Brühl noted that, because of fear of a drought, if a baby was born feet first in British East Africa, she or he was smothered. The Tswana people did the same since they feared the newborn would bring ill fortune to the parents. Similarly, William Sumner noted that the Vadshagga killed children whose upper incisors came first. If a mother died in childbirth among the Ibo people of Nigeria, the newborn was buried alive. It suffered a similar fate if the father died.
In The Child in Primitive Society, Nathan Miller wrote in the 1920s that among the Kuni tribe every mother had killed at least one of her children. Child sacrifice was practiced as late as 1929 in Zimbabwe, where a daughter of the tribal chief used to be sacrificed as a petition of rain.
Infanticide among the autochthone people in the Oceania islands is widespread. In some areas of the Fiji islands up to 50% of newborn infants were killed. In the 19th century Ugi, in the Solomon Islands almost 75% of the indigenous children had been brought from adjoining tribes due to the high incidence rate of infanticide, a unique feature of these tribal societies. In another Solomon island, San Cristóbal, the firstborn was considered "ahubweu" and often buried alive. In 1888, Lieut. F. Elton reported that Ugi beach people in the Solomon Islands killed their infants at birth by burying them, and women were also said to practice abortion. They reported that it was too much trouble to raise a child, and instead preferred to buy one from the bush people. As a rationale for their behavior, some parents in British New Guinea complained: "Girls [...] don't become warriors, and they don't stay to look for us in our old age."
According to Bronislaw Malinowski, who wrote a book on indigenous Australians in the early 1960s, "infanticide is practiced among all Australian natives." The practice has been reported in Tasmania, Western Australia, Central Australia, South Australia, in the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Anthropologist Géza Róheim wrote:
When the Yumu, Pindupi, Ngali, or Nambutji were hungry, they ate small children with neither ceremonial nor animistic motives. Among the southern tribes, the Matuntara, Mularatara, or Pitjentara, every second child was eaten in the belief that the strength of the first child would be doubled by such a procedure.
Family units usually consisted of three children. Brough Smyth, a 19th century researcher, estimated that in Victoria about 30% of the births resulted in infanticide. Mildred Dickeman concurs that that figure is accurate in other Australia tribes as a result of a surplus of the birthrate. Cannibalism was observed in Victoria at the beginning of the 20th century. The Wotjo tribe, as well as the tribes of the lower Murray River, sometimes killed a newborn to feed an older sibling.
Thomas Robert Malthus wrote that, in the New South Wales region, when the mother died sucking infants were buried alive with her. In the Darling River region, infanticide was practiced "by a blow on the back of the head, by strangling with a rope, or chocking with sand".
In Queensland a tribal woman could have children after the age of thirty. Otherwise babies would be killed.
Aram Yengoyan calculated that, in Western Australia, the Pitjandjara people killed 19% of their newborns.
In the 19th century the native Tasmanians were exterminated by the colonists, who regarded them as a degenerate race. Richard H. Davies (fl. 1830s - 1887), a brother of Archdeacon Davies, wrote that Tasmanian "females have been known to desert their infants for the sake of suckling the puppies", which were later used for hunting. Like other tribal Australians, when the mother died the child was buried as well.
In ancient Polynesian societies infanticide was common. Families were supposed to rear no more than two children. Writing about the natives, Raymond Firth noted: "If another child is born, it is buried in the earth and covered with stones".
Infanticide and child sacrifice was practiced in the New World at times when in Western Europe it was largely abandoned.
The Yukon and the Mahlemuit tribes of Alaska exposed the female newborns by first stuffing their mouths with grass before leaving them to die. In Arctic Canada the Eskimos exposed their babies on the ice and left to die.
Female Eskimo infanticide disappeared in the 1930s and 1940s after contact with the Western cultures from the South.
In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide. For the Maidu Native Americans in the United States twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well. In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo recounted that, after landing on the Veracruz coast, they came across a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. "That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol". In The Conquest of New Spain Díaz describes more child sacrifices in the towns before the Spaniards reached the large Aztec city Tenochtitlan.
Although academic data of infanticides among the indigenous people in South America is not as abundant as data on North America, the estimates seem to be similar.
The Tapirapé indigenous people of Brazil allowed no more than three children per woman. Furthermore, no more than two had to be of the same sex. If the rule was broken infanticide was practiced. The people in the Bororo tribe killed all the newborns that did not appear healthy enough. Infanticide is also documented in the case of the Korubo people in the Amazon.
Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia
While Capacocha sacrifice was practiced in the Peruvian large cities, child sacrifice in the pre-Columbian tribes of the region is less documented. However, even today studies on the Aymara Indians reveal high incidences of mortality among the newborn, especially female deaths, suggesting infanticide. The Abipones, a small tribe of Guaycuran stock, of about 5,000 by the end of the 18th century in Paraguay, practiced systematic infanticide; with never more than two children being reared in one family. Infanticide among the Chaco in Paraguay was estimated as high as 50% of all newborns in that tribe, who were usually buried. The infanticidal custom had such roots among the Ayoreo in Bolivia and Paraguay that it persisted until the late 20th century.
Infant abandonment occurs in modern societies. Abandonment places infants at risk of becoming indirect victims of infanticide. Abandoned infants are essentially orphans and many receive care through orphanages or adoption. Infanticide, per se, has become less common in the Western world, but continues today in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India. Female infants, then and even now, are particularly vulnerable, a factor in gendercide.
The practice has continued in some rural areas of India.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million girls and women are missing in India's population as a result of systematic gender discrimination. In India there are less than 93 women for every 100 men in the population. The accepted reason for such a disparity is the practice of female foeticide and female infanticide, prompted by the existence of a dowry system which requires the family to pay out a great amount of money when a female child is married. For a poor family, the birth of a girl child can signal the beginning of financial ruin and extreme hardship.
The situation in China
There have been some accusations that infanticide occurs in the People's Republic of China due to the one-child policy, although most demographers do not believe that the practice is widespread. In the 1990s, a certain stretch of the Yangtze River was known to be a common site of infanticide by drowning, until government projects made access to it more difficult. Others assert that China has twenty-five million fewer girl children than expected, but sex selective abortion can partially be to blame. The illegal use of ultrasound is widespread in China, and itinerant sonographers with plain vans in parking lots offer inexpensive sonographs to determine the sex of a fetus.
"100 million missing women"
The idea of there being "100 million missing women", largely in Asia, originated with or was popularised by an influential 1990 essay by Amartya Sen. This gender gap may indeed be partly explained by female infanticide and sex-selective abortion.
Explanations for the practice
Present-day infanticide aside, diverse and often contradictory explanations have been proposed to account for the ancient practice in tribal societies.
Customs, taboos and genetics
Larry S. Milner, author of Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life, a treatise on infanticide, believes that superstition has always reigned supreme in tribal religion. In chapters 9 through 21 Milner explores diverse beliefs as possible causes of infanticide, from punishment and shame to poverty, famine, revenge, depression and insanity and superstitious omens. Curiously, besides his "customs and taboos" viewpoint, Milner also writes in the concluding chapter of his study of infanticide:
So with this strata of support, I have concluded that it is a normal — a "natural"— trait for a human being to be willing to kill his or her own child, especially during the first year of life, and that there are genetic factors which are determinative of this compulsion.
However, Milner's treatise includes at the same time cultural hypotheses for the practice, and his approach to the subject has been criticized as an idealized view of infanticide.
A minority of academics subscribe to an alternate school of thought, considering the ancient tribal practice as "early infanticidal childrearing". They attribute parental infanticidal wishes to massive projection of the parents' psychological dissociation onto the child, because of intergenerational, ancestral abuse by their own parents.
In addition to debates over the morality of infanticide itself, there is some debate over the effects of infanticide on surviving children, and the effects of childrearing in societies that also sanction infanticide. Some argue that the practice of infanticide in any widespread form causes enormous psychological damage in children. Conversely, studying societies that practice infanticide Géza Róheim reported that even infanticidal mothers in New Guinea, who ate a child, did not affect the personality development of the surviving children; that "these are good mothers who eat their own children". Marvin Harris and William Divale's work on the relationship between female infanticide and warfare suggests that there are, however, extensive negative effects.
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