Silk and Linen in the New World?
The Book of Mormon claims that people in the New World had “silk and fine-twined linen” (Alma 1:29; 4:6; Ether 9:17; 10:24; see also Mosiah 10:5; Helaman 6:13). Linen is made from flax, which does not grow in the Americas, and silk comes from silkworms, which have a very specific diet (mulberry leaves), which requires a climate such as that of China, where they are raised.
These words appear in what have been termed “word groups,” combinations of words that are frequently used together (and usually in the same order), which would suggest that the origin of the group is the Old World from which the Jaredites and Lehites came, where both silk and linen were known.[i]
Bernal Diaz, who served with Cortez during the conquest of Mexico, described native American garments made of “henequen which is like linen.” Henequen is the maguay plant, the fibers of which resemble flax fibers.[ii] Spanish bishop Diego de Landa described how the Mayan priests used linen garb in their baptismal rites.[iii]
The Hebrew word translated “silk” in Proverbs 31:22 of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is usually rendered “linen,” which is how it was translated in Ezekiel 16:10, 13, where a different Hebrew word is rendered “silk.” Silk was imported from China and India into the Near East of Lehi’s time.[iv]
There are actually five varieties of wild silkworm in the New World, one of which ranges from northern South America into the southwestern part of the United States.[v] Silk from a wild Mexican silkworm was used to spin fiber that the Spanish Conquistadors called seda, their word for “silk.”[vi] Famed Americanist Hubert H. Bancroft noted a Conquistador text that described a garment worn by an Indian priest, saying, “around the neck it is embroidered with coarse silk, as in Tehuantepec.”[vii]William Prescott noted that early Spanish records indicate that the manuscripts written by the inhabitants of Mexico prior to the Conquest were sometimes made of silk and gum.[viii]
A 1993 report from the Denver Museum of Natural History noted that “anthropologists think that during the time of [the Aztec king] Moctezuma II, 1502-1519, the Aztecs spun a kind of silk and wove it into fabric used for trade. No silk fabrics from that period have survived, but early Spanish codices tell of wild silk in the New World prior to the introduction of mulberry-feeding silkworms.” The article cites a 1988 study of a Mexican butterfly whose silk cocoon “might have been a source of silk.” Richard S. Peigler, the museum’s curator of entomology who wrote the report and led an expedition to the region, was unable to tear the cocoons open and had to use a knife. He noted that the butterfly larvae cluster in large communal webs averaging “six to ten inches in length,” established in madrone trees.[ix]
For previous treatments of this question, see:
Maurice W. Connell, “The Prophet Said Silk,” The Improvement Era 65/5 (May 1962), also posted on the SHIELDS web site at http://www.shields-research.org/Scriptures/BoM/SILK02.html#1
John L. Sorenson, “Possible ‘Silk’ and ‘Linen’ in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Update of November 1988, reprinted in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1992). See also Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 186-7, 232; Sorenson, “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 336.
[i] See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes and Kevin L. Barney, “Word Groups in the Book of Mormon, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (Fall 1997), republished in John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999).
[ii] Alfred Maudslay, trans., Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico (New York: Farrer, Straus and Cudahy, 1956), 24.
[iii] Bruce W. Warren and Thomas Stuart Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America (Provo: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, 1987), 133.
[iv] Philippa Scott, The Book of Silk (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 78-80.
[v] Frederick Drimmer, ed., The Animal Kingdom: The Strange and Wonderful Ways of Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Fishes and Insects. A New and Authentic Natural History of the Wildlife of the World, 3 vols.(New York: Greystone Press, 1954), 3:1934.
[vi] Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson, “Basketry and Textiles,” in Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, part 1, Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971). 10:312; cf. William H. Prescott, The History of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 84, citing Humboldt.
[vii] Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Native Races-Wild Tribes, vol. 1 of The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft. 15 Volumes (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Company, 1882-88), 1:650.
[viii] William H. Prescott, The History of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 1:102.
[ix] Richard S. Peigler, “Silkworm of the Aztecs,” Museum Quarterly 2/1 (Spring 1993): 10-11.