Sorenson: Linen and silk textiles in ancient America

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Sorenson: Linen and silk textiles in ancient America

John L. Sorenson:[1]

Linen and silk are textiles mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Alma 4:6). Neither fabric as we now know them was found in Mesoamerica at the coming of the Spaniards. The problem might be no more than linguistic. The redoubtable Bernal Diaz, who served with Cortez in the initial wave of conquest, described native Mexican garments made of "henequen which is like linen." [2] The fiber of the maguey plant, from which henequen was manufactured, closely resembles the flax fiber used to make European linen. Several kinds of "silk," too, were reported by the conquerors. One kind was of thread spun from the fine hair on the bellies of rabbits. Padre Motolinia also reported the presence of a wild silkworm, although he thought the Indians did not make use of the cocoons. But other reports indicate that wild silk was spun and woven in certain areas of Mesoamerica. Another type came from the pod of the ceiba tree. [3] We may never discover actual remains of these fabrics, but at least the use of the words in the Book of Mormon now seems to offer no problem.

Notes

  1. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]), 232. See also Sorenson, "Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon," Ensign (April 1992): 62.
  2. A.P. Maudslay, trans. and ed. Bernal Diaz del Castillo: The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1956), p. 24. (Note: Sorenson p. 232 note 52 corresponds to endnote 52, p. 382).
  3. I.W. Johnson, "Basketry and Textiles," HMAI 10, part 1 (1971), p. 312. Matthew Wallrath in Excavations in the Tehuantepec Region, Mexico, American Philosophical Society Transactions, n.s. 57, part 2 (1967) p. 12, notes that wild silk was collected and spun in the isthmus area, and that the cloth had very high value. Clavigero also reported that fiber of the ceiba tree's pod was woven by Mexican Indians into fabric "as soft and delicate, and perhaps more so, than silk." C. Cullen, ed., The History of Mexico, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1817), p. 41. (Note: Sorenson p. 232 note 54 corresponds to endnote 53, p. 382)