Evidence #183 | April 19, 2021

Mesoamerican Linen

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Pre-Columbian peoples in ancient Mesoamerica produced a variety of textiles that can be described as linen, just as the Book of Mormon depicts.

Linen in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon indicates that linen was one of many items produced and valued by the people in the land of promise. The Jaredites had “fine linen” (Ether 9:17; 10:24), as did the people of King Zeniff in the land of Nephi-Lehi (Mosiah 10:5). Several generations later, during the reign of the Judges, the people in the land of Zarahemla also had an abundance of “fine-twined linen” (Alma 1:29; 4:6), and “did make all manner of cloth of fine-twined linen” (Helaman 6:13).

The term linen can refer to “cloth made of flax or hemp” and as an adjective can refer to something “resembling linen cloth.”1 While some readers have claimed that references to linen are out of place in an ancient American text,2 such references are actually consistent with current evidence from Mesoamerica.

Pre-Columbian Linen

Due to their perishable nature, very few ancient textiles have survived into modern times.3 Rare finds, however, from archaeological sites with favorable environmental conditions, historical testimony, and ethnographic evidence, provide insight into the nature of pre-Columbian fabrics and clothing.4

John Sorenson has shown that ancient Mesoamericans had a rich textile industry which included a variety of fabrics.

Although the flax plant was apparently not known in pre-Spanish America, several fabrics were made from vegetable fabrics that look and feel much like European linen. One was made from fibers (called henequen) of the leaf of the ixtle (maguey or agave plant), but fibers from the yucca and other plants gave similar results.5

Tuft of Ixtle fiber. Image via Wikipedia. 

The Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz observed that the Aztecs “painted on cloths made of hemp, which is like linen.”6 The native historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl wrote that the earlier Toltecs had various kinds of cloth that were “like thin linen” and “like thick linen.”7

Bag made of ixtle fiber. Image via Adobe Stock.

According to one team of researchers, “the Maya of the southern lowlands made use of various non-cotton fibers. Henequen (also referred to as ‘hemp’) was grown, spun, and used for making cordage and sandals; other varieties of agave (or maguey) can produce very fine fibers for other types of textiles.”8 Billie Follensbee states that “some Mesoamerican cloth textiles were made without spinning at all, such as the finest agave cloth, which was woven using a single-strand, unspun fiber.”9

Agave plant from which ixtle fibers are extracted. 

Conclusion

Although viewed by some readers as evidence that the Book of Mormon was a nineteenth-century production, the text’s references to “linen” made from “fine” fibers are supported by evidence from Mesoamerica. Linen and soft linen-like textiles were part of a rich pre-Columbian cultural heritage, just as the Book of Mormon suggests.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 345–347.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America and the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 88–93.

John L. Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992), 162–164.

Mosiah 10:5Alma 1:29Alma 4:6Helaman 6:13Ether 9:17Ether 10:24

Mosiah 10:5

Alma 1:29

Alma 4:6

Helaman 6:13

Ether 9:17

Ether 10:24

  • 1 Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), s.v.  LIN'ENnoun [Latin linun, flax, Gr. The sense is probably long, extended or smooth. In the latter sense, it would accord with Latin linio, lenio.] 1. Cloth made of flax or hemp. 2. An under garment. LIN'ENadjective [Latin lineus.] 1. Made of flax or hemp; as linen cloth; a linen stocking. 2. Resembling linen cloth; white; pale.”
  • 2 George Bartholomew Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing Forms (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1932), 55; John A. Price, “The Book of Mormon Vs. Anthropological Prehistory,” The Indian Historian 7, no. 3 (Summer 1974): 38; Gordon H. Fraser, Joseph and the Golden Plates (Eugene, OR: Industrial Litho, 1978), 66–68.
  • 3 Arlen F. Chase, Diane Z. Chase, Elayne Zorn, and Wendy Teeter, “Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record: Gender, Power, and Status in Classic Period Caracol, Belize,” Ancient Mesoamerica 19 (2008): 127–128.
  • 4 An excellent resource on pre-Columbian clothing in Mesoamerica is Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Indian Clothing Before Cortes: Mesoamerican Costume from the Codices (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).
  • 5 John L. Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992), 162.
  • 6 Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin Books, 1963), 35.
  • 7 Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas, 2 vols., ed., Alfredo Chavero (Mexico: Editora Nacional, 1952), 1:40.
  • 8 Chase, et. al, “Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record,” 127–128.
  • 9 Billie J. A. Follensbee, “From Technology and Weaving in Formative-Period Gulf Coast Cultures,” Ancient Mesoamerica 19 (2008): 92.
Culture
Clothes and Fashion
Linens
Book of Mormon

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