Dec 25, 2009

Did the Nephites Have Silk? The
Implications of Silk in Book of Mormon

And they did have silks, and fine-twined linen; and they did work all
manner of cloth, that they might clothe themselves from their nakedness
(Ether 10:24).

Silk (or silks) is mentioned in the Book of Mormon five separate times. Two of these are Jaredite references (Ether 9:17; 10:24) and three Nephite (1 Ne. 13:7-8; Alma 1:29; Alma 4:6). The references in Ether and Alma imply that the Jaredites and Nephites at least possessed silk garments, and probably produced them. The reference in 1st Nephi implies a knowledge of silk garments, and was written prior to the Nephite arrival in the Americas.
These references have generated criticism from critics of the Book of Mormon because silk production was unknown except in China until after the time of Christ. So the question naturally arises “how did Book of Mormon peoples acquire this technology?” Critics have enthusiastically used this supposed “error” as one reason to reject the Book of Mormon, thus claiming it is untrue and a fabrication by Joseph Smith. Even many supporters of the book seem at a loss to explain the existence of silk in Book of Mormon lands and times.
But what if we assume the Book of Mormon claim is correct and that these people actually did have the knowledge and skill to manufacture silk fabric. What are the implications of this assumption? In my opinion the possession of silk implies that the Book of Mormon peoples had early contact with China. Specifically, that the Jaredites passed through China during its early history, crossed the Pacific Ocean, and landed on the western coast of the new world.
In addition, these references imply that the Nephites acquired silk making skills from remnant Jaredites that they or the Mulekites encountered. But before we explore these implications, let us briefly review the background and history of silk.
Sericulture, or silk production, has a long and colorful history, unknown to most people. Silk is a strong, thin fiber which is produced by various species of silk moths during the process of constructing their cocoons. Silk has been used in cloth making for about 4000 years, and produces a sheer, lustrous, beautiful fabric which has been prized by the nobility and the wealthy for centuries. It was a Chinese monopoly for approximately 2000 years, and has been a major export from both ancient and modern China.
According to Chinese legend, the serendipitous discovery of silk occurred about 2,000 B.C. when the cocoon of a silkworm fell into a cup of hot tea (or hot bath water depending upon which legend you prefer). This softened the gum which cemented the silk fibers and the cocoon unraveled. The story relates that prince, Hoang-ti, directed his wife, Si-ling-chi, to examine the
silkworm fibers and test the practicability of using the thread. Thereafter, Si-ling-chi discovered not only the means of raising silkworms, but also the manner of reeling the silk, and of employing it to make garments.
Once the technology was developed, the Chinese, realizing the value of their discovery, guarded the secret closely. A death penalty was imposed for anyone divulging it to an outsider. It was probably the longest kept industrial secret in the history of the world. The outside world didn’t have a clue as to the source or manufacture of silk. This lack of knowledge is exemplified by the
philosopher Virgil who theorized that the thread was made by combing the fuzz off of leaves. It wasn’t until after 300 AD that the knowledge was finally leaked to Korea, then to Japan and India, and later to the western world.
Although there are several commercial species of silkworms, Bombyx mori is the most widely used and intensively studied, and techniques for it’s rearing are the most improved. This insect is the sole living species in its family, Bombycidae, and has been domesticated for so long that it probably no longer survives in the wild. This moth produces an adult caterpillar the size of a piece of chalk (similar in size to the common green horned tomato worm known to home gardeners), with a comparable sized cocoon. The caterpillar constructs the cocoon by wrapping itself with a protein fiber (silk) which is extruded from its salivary glands. Simultaneously a gum called sericin is extruded with the silk fiber, which cements the strands together.
The basic process consists of obtaining the eggs from the moths, hatching the eggs either artificially or naturally, growing the caterpillars to the cocoon stage, gathering the finished cocoons and killing the enclosed pupae with heat or chemical means (this is necessary to prevent the emergence of the moth which would break up the long strand of fiber), softening the sericin
gum (usually in hot water) and unwinding the spools. Four to eight individual fibers are then twisted into one thread. In commercial processes using the moth Bombyx mori, all these steps are performed under artificial conditions. However, in India, using several different species of silk moths, part or all of these steps are carried out in the natural environment with partial to minimal human interference.
Many individual species of silkworm moths, which construct silk cocoons, exist throughout the world. Some of these may be capable of producing silk on a commercial basis such as those “wild” species which are used in India. Some of these species may even be equivalent to the ancient parents of Bombyx mori before this species was domesticated.
There are a number of silkworm moths that are native to the Americas that could have been used by the ancient inhabitants to make silk if they were aware of the process. John Sorenson mentions that some of the early Spanish historians note the presence of a wild silkworm in Mesoamerica, and that wild silk was spun and woven in certain areas (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 232).
Now back to the Book of Mormon. If silk were in fact produced by the ancient Jaredites and Nephites, what are the implications of this fact? First it implies that the Jaredites had contact with the ancient Chinese (although it is possible that they developed the process independently, this is highly unlikely). Second, it implies that the Jaredites traveled eastward to the Pacific, rather than the western Atlantic route. Their Chinese contact could have been a primary one, as they migrated eastward through Asia. If this were the case, they would have been in China
during its earliest history and according to the Book of Ether remained there for at least four years before crossing the Pacific. They could have concievably acquired silk making skills during this period of contact, and taken these skills with them to the new world. On the other hand, the contact could have been through a secondary source such as Chinese mariners who may have later crossed the Pacific bringing the secret with them (such voyages have never been proven but are mentioned in Chinese legend). My contention is that the knowledge was gained while the Jaredites were in China.
Regarding the Nephite possession of silk: we can safely eliminate the possibilities that they had primary contact with Mainland China, or that they developed the process independently. From their Near Eastern origins, they were aware of silk and its use by the nobility and the wealthy, but they, like the rest of the world, had no knowledge of its production. This leaves two remaining possibilities: contact with Chinese mariners, or contact with Jaredites who still retained knowledge of the process after 600 BC. I favor the latter possibility. In the case of Chinese mariners, they would most likely have been merchants (unless they were refugees as some have suggested) and it is unlikely that they would have shared the secret process, but would have maintained the trade advantage. In the case of Jaredite remnants, a number of scholars have concluded that there were such remnants following the last Jaredite wars, and that these remnants had contact with the Nephite/Lamanite/Mulekite culture.
In conclusion, if my contentions are correct, the existence of silk among the Jaredites and Nephites of the American continent is credible and lends evidence to the following: 1) the Jaredites traveled eastward through China, and crossed the Pacific Ocean to reach the Promised Land; 2) the Jaredites had contact with the early Chinese; 3) there were remnant Jaredites following the final wars of Coriantumr and these remnants had contact with the Nephite/
Lamanite/Mulekite culture; 4) the Nephites acquired silk making skills from these remnant Jaredites.