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Latest revision as of 13:00, 30 September 2014

Textiles in the New World

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Culture/New World

Material culture in the Book of Mormon: Silk and linen

John L. Sorenson:

The Book of Mormon, in Alma 4:6, refers to the "fine silks" and "fine-twined linen" of the Nephites in the early first century BC. More than a thousand years earlier the Jaredites also had "silks, and fine-twined linen" (Ether 10:24). However, when European conquerors arrived in the Americas, they found neither Old World silkworms nor flax. Critics have charged Joseph Smith with arbitrarily inserting into the Book of Mormon text the names of those two textiles, and they say that the presence of the two fibers cannot be substantiated by the cultural record for pre-Columbian America. In recent years, however, several fabrics that have been identified in ancient Mesoamerica deserve to be called "silk" and "linen." The text of the Book of Mormon is now vindicated in this regard, although nobody in the nineteenth century, including Smith, could have known enough from secular learning to provide any historical basis for using the two words.

Normal usage today limits the term silk to the fabric made of thread exuded by the Japanese silkworm (actually the larva of an Asian moth, Bombyx mori). However, the term embraces meanings that extend beyond the Japanese reference. For instance, Aristotle and other classical Greek writers referred to "silk" in use in their world that had no entomological connection with the Far East, and two types of silkworm native to southeastern Europe yielded cocoons from which a fine thread comparable to Asian silk was obtained.49 Thus a legitimate sense of the term silk is "a cloth having characteristics like [Japanese] silk," regardless of whether it originated from the Japanese insect.

Various fabrics in use among the inhabitants of Mexico and Central America when the Spaniards arrived were considered silk or its equivalent by the invaders. One of these fabrics was, indeed, made from cocoons that were gathered from trees in the wild in Mexico and spun into costly cloth. Although the insect involved is not the Japanese one, the procedure of gathering the fine thread is essentially the same as for Japanese silk.50 There were also a number of other silk-like fabrics reported by the Spaniards. In Yucatán, fiber from inside the pod of the ceiba tree, called kapok, was gathered and spun. Bishop Diego de Landa compared the resulting cloth to imported silk,51 while Father Clavigero described it as "soft and delicate, and perhaps more so, than [Japanese] silk."52 Silky fiber from the wild pineapple plant was also used to weave a fine textile.53 Moreover, a silk-like fabric was woven by the Aztecs from delicate rabbit hair.54 Even cotton cloth could be woven so fine that specimens excavated at Teotihuacán, in central Mexico, and dating to the fourth century AD have been characterized as "exceedingly fine" and "of gossamer thinness."55 These examples provide sufficient evidence that the Book of Mormon references to "silk" are plausible, even though Joseph Smith could not have known any of these historical facts on his own.

"Fine-twined linen" is mentioned three times and "fine linen" three more in the records of the Jaredites and Nephites (e.g., Mosiah 10:5). Yet the flax plant from which our familiar linen is made did not grow in America. On this count too the Book of Mormon has been charged with error. Actually, though, the word linen has a broad dictionary meaning in addition to the narrow meaning of cloth made from flax. A textile may be called linen if it has the characteristics of linen. Linen is prepared by soaking and pounding fibers from the flax or hemp plant until they congeal into a strong, solid sheet. In pre-Spanish America native peoples made two kinds of cloth by a similar process. The leaves of the ixtle, maguey, or agave plant were soaked and pounded in the same manner as flax was treated in Europe. The resulting thread and fabric, known as henequen, was the most commonly used cloth, especially among people of the lower economic classes in central Mexico. The Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz explicitly described this cloth as "like linen."56 Another cloth made of vegetable fiber is bark cloth. The bark of the fig tree was stripped off in large sheets, then soaked, pounded, and dried until the matted material was soft. (Details of the process, and even the same implements, are found in cultures all the way across the Pacific to Southeast Asia.)57 The resulting "cloth" feels a good deal like henequen or linen.58

Joseph Smith had no way of knowing about the history of silk and linen, yet the record he translated, the Book of Mormon, turns out to agree with modern evidence that textiles with these labels were used in Mesoamerica.[1]

Notes

  1. John W. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 9, references silently removed—consult original for citations.

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