Silkworms (also spelled silk worms) are the larval form of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori. Native to northern China, the silk moth was domesticated from its progenitor species Bombyx mandarina about 3500 BC. Today the silkworm is reliant upon human intervention to reproduce. The cocoons of the silk moth are spun by the larva themselves—and the silk fibers are simply unraveled, each cocoon producing between 100-300 meters of fine thread.
The history of the use of the cocoons of the silkworm species Bombyx to produce cloth suggests that it was in use at least as early as the Longshan period (3500-2000 BC), and perhaps earlier. Evidence of silk for this period is only known from a few remnant textile fragments recovered from well-preserved tombs. Textual evidence for silk production is found in the Shi Ji, and art depictions of garments.
Silkworms and Jin Brocades
The Western Zhou Dynasty (11th-8th centuries BC) saw the development of the famous Jin brocades, as evidenced by excavations at Wulipai. Many silk textile examples have been recovered from archaeological excavations of sites Mashan and Baoshan sites, dated to the Chu Kingdom (7th century BC) of the later Warring States period.
By the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 9), silk production was so important to international trade that the roadways used to connect Chang'An with Europe were named The Silk Road. The secret of the production for silk remained unknown outside China until the 6th century AD.
Silkworm Sources and Further InformationFrom About's Ancient History Guide
See the July 2008 article in Smithsonian magazine by Peter Ross Range called Silken Treasure for information on the silk industry in Como, Italy.
This article is part of the About.com Guide to the History of Animal Domestication.
Biological analysis group, et al. 2004 A Draft Sequence for the Genome of the Domesticated Silkworm (Bombyx mori). Science 306(5703):1937-1940.
Wenming, Yan. 2004. The Cradle of Eastern Civilization. Pp. 49-75 in Yang, Xiaoneng. 2004. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Zhao, Hong-Ping, et al. 2005 Mechanical properties of silkworm cocoons. Polymer 46(21):9192-9201.
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.