West African Wild Silks: A Conjuncture of Material Temporalities

West African Wild Silks: A Conjuncture of Material Temporalities

 

Laurence Douny, Matters of Activity. Image Space Material, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

 

Silk is most often associated with the delicate, expensive fabric made with Chinese Bombyx mori, or mulberry silk.1 Nevertheless, other kinds of silk, which in the West are described as ‘wild’ silks,2 have been produced by small local industries in different parts of the world since ancient times.3 Wild silk generally has a rough, dullish appearance that stands in marked contrast to the fine, lustrous silk of the Bombyx mori.4 West African wild silk – which is easily confused with cotton by non-specialists – has long been used by the Marka-Dafing people of north-western Burkina Faso for weaving their much-admired textiles known as tuntun, a term attributed both to the material and to the insects that produce the silk.5 The silk is spun by the caterpillars of undomesticated moths of the genera Anaphe, Epanaphe, and Epiphora.6 Whereas Anaphe and Epanaphe cocoons are large collective nests spun by hundreds of caterpillars and have a brown or whitish colour, each Epiphora cocoon, which is white in colour, is produced separately by a single animal (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: A communal nest spun by hundreds of caterpillars, Safané, Burkina Faso, September 2019. Photograph by Salif Sawadogo.

In this blog, wild silk is envisaged according to three temporal dimensions: first, the materials historical trajectory over the longue durée; second, the natural life cycles of the silk-producing insects and of Marka-Dafing women; and, third, the depletion of the cocoons and the endangerment of the wild-silk-producing species. These three temporal dimensions are briefly explored through the lens of an anthropology of materials and techniques to highlight how wild silk is culturally shaped by the Marka-Dafing. This indigenous material, which has been traded for several centuries within and between Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and beyond,7 has long been used by the Marka-Dafing for the production of charms and elite garments. To make wild silk yarns and fabrics, the cocoons are subjected to a lengthy and laborious process in which the silk’s sheen is gradually made manifest. When the fabric is worn, this sheen acts to confer charisma and social visibility to Marka-Dafing women8 during pivotal moments in their lives, from their wedding to the birth of a child and, finally, their death. However, the silk is not only embedded in the life cycles of Marka-Dafing women; the development of a human foetus in the womb is believed to be symbolically related to the development that takes place inside the cocoon. Yet, in parts of West Africa, the survival of these ephemeral insect species is under threat. Due to climate change and human factors, including the partial depletion of these species caused by the extensive collection of cocoons during colonial times, the cocoons have become increasingly scarce.

For the purpose of this blog, time is considered as a conjuncture of temporalities9 – in the sense of simultaneous or successive time spans. I propose the concept of conjuncture as a means to think about the historical, socio-symbolic, and material processes by which wild silk has been coproduced by insects and humans and consumed or traded as a natural and cultural material and artefact. Hence, time is treated here as an entanglement of ‘material’ temporalities in a way that emphasises temporal relations between cocoons, textiles, insects, women, and the Marka-Dafing community at large. Within this insect-material-human framework, a consideration of the materiality10 of wild silk – defined as the properties and qualities of this animal material appropriated and interpreted by humans – offers an opportunity to explore how wild silk comes into being culturally, but also how it may come to an end during the Anthropocene, since this material is becoming increasingly rare.

Wild silk’s trajectories in history

Wild silks have received far less scholarly attention than the better-known silk of the Bombyx mori. However, existing alongside this precious and world-renowned Chinese silk, one also finds a large variety of wild silks. These silks have been known since ancient times in Asia and other parts of the world. While carrying out excavations in the Indus Valley, for example, archaeologists Irene Good, Jonathan Kenoyer, and Richard Meadow discovered wild silk fibres that had been used in Harappa as early as 2400 BCE.11 Furthermore, in his book Through the Jade Gate to Rome, John E. Hill points out that wild silk was also produced and traded by the Roman Empire between the first and second centuries CE.12

In West Africa, fragments of silk fabrics dating back to between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE, including a damask that is probably of Chinese origin and a ‘veil’ that can be dated to between the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE were found during an excavation conducted by Sam Nixon in Essouk-Tadmekka in northern Mali.13 Beginning in the seventeenth century, silk was imported from Europe and Asia to West Africa, where the threads of silk fabrics were unravelled to be incorporated into Akan Kente cloth.14 In the late nineteenth century a European waste silk that is often dyed magenta and called alharini by the Hausa was incorporated into men’s gowns of prestige. This silk was imported in trans-Saharan caravans in large quantities from North Africa down to the market town of Kano in northern Nigeria.15 In this period, endemic wild silk was also largely used in local and established textile industries and traded within and outside Nigeria.16 As Philip Shea writes, the precious wild silks from Bauchi State were ‘known as far as Dakar in Senegal’.17 In Kano this prestigious material was much in demand for use in the hand-embroidered garments of Muslim men,18 as it has continued to be at least until recent times.19 At the start of the twentieth century, at the request of the British colonial administration, the raw material was increasingly collected by the local population for the production of, among other things, plush, velvet, and military apparel in Europe, before being largely replaced by nylon. According to the oral tradition of the wild silk producers and collectors on the south bank of the Mouhoun River, the Marka-Dafing have been producing wild silks on a small scale in western Burkina Faso since at least the seventeenth century.20 Hence, while at some point there was a temporal intersection, Bombyx mori and non-Bombyx mori species have been taken by humans along different but parallel historical paths. The particular historical trajectory of wild silk seems to have been determined by the practices of its trading and its production, based on the local, cultural, and economic significance attributed to this precious material, which in West Africa has mainly been used in the production of prestigious and ceremonial garments worn by men and women.

Entangled life cycles

In Marka-Dafing society, wild silk is a power-conferring material, and considerable effort is expended to obtain it and to process it into a fabric. From the production of the silk to the buying and wearing of the cloth, tuntun textiles21 (see Figure 2) are very much the concern of women.22 Furthermore, wild silk textiles are deeply embedded in women’s life cycles. Wild silk garments – Marka-Dafing women’s most refined pieces of clothing – celebrate a woman’s youth but also her role as a mother and wife, and they accompany Marka-Dafing women through pivotal moments in their lives, such as their wedding, the birth of their children, and, as a shroud, their funeral. However, not only the textiles but also the life cycle of the wild-silk-producing insect is conceptually embedded in the life cycles of women. Silk-producing insects have a short life span, completing their full life cycle within six to eight weeks: the caterpillars gather to spin a communal nest where they shed their skin and pupate, eventually metamorphosing into moths; these moths then leave the cocoon, mate, and lay eggs from which new caterpillars emerge. Because the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a moth inside its cocoon is believed to follow a similar pattern to that of human gestation within a woman’s womb, young women are forbidden to boil the cocoons, since it is believed that this would affect their reproductive cycle and cause a miscarriage.

 

Figure 2: A wild silk wrapper known as a tuntun produced by Marka-Dafing women, Safané, Burkina Faso, December 2020. Photograph by Salif Sawadogo.

Whereas the insects have an ephemeral life span, the silk is said by Marka-Dafing women to endure over time and to surpass the period of a woman’s life. Similarly, the sheen of silk is said to be further enhanced each time the textile is worn. Sheen as an aesthetic and visual quality is only visible to the trained eye and is gradually freed from the fibre in the course of a long technical process that consists of removing only a part of the sericin holding the threads together in the cocoon.23 According to the Marka-Dafing, the sheen, or daoula, is an inherent force that is ‘living’ and ‘active’; it is constitutive of the mechanical, medicinal, and magical properties of the silk that allow women to act both on other people and on the invisible world. Sheen as a form of material agency helps women to attract the benevolence of the invisible world in their everyday life, since the sheen of the loincloth and matching headscarf confers an aura of charisma to its wearers. Moreover, whereas the body of the wearer decays, the sheen or daoula of wild silk improves over time. This natural form of enhancement is believed to occur through contact with the skin when the textile is worn, as well as through careful handling and the effect of bright sunlight. Wild silk wrappers are extremely personal items of clothing that not only accompany important life events, they also defy the passing of time, since they survive their owners and are passed on either to the griots24 or to the other women of the family. Yet this tradition is threatened due to the scarcity of the raw material caused by the decline in insect populations.

Endangerment

Wild-silk-producing insects make up only one in a long list of insect species in global decline.25 Over the past sixty or seventy years the number of wild-silk-producing insects has gradually decreased in various parts of West Africa – including Nigeria, where entomologists have long drawn attention to the problem.26 As the main causes for diminishing numbers, Musiliu Ashiru cites deforestation and the exhaustion of the species as a result of the demands of the European textile industry during the colonial period, which led to the partial depletion of the genetic base of silkworms and their host, threatening the species with extinction.27 Caterpillars have also been overexploited in parts of Ivory Coast and Guinea Conakry, since here they are widely consumed as food and the numbers fail to regenerate properly. The cocoons are collected by local populations once the caterpillars have shed their urticating skins, whereas the collectors interested in the silk take the cocoons only once the moths have left.

Former and current Marka-Dafing silk traders believe that the demise of this vulnerable species in Burkina Faso is in part caused by climate change and global warming, which is intensely felt in the region. However, human activity such as the extensive use of pesticides on crop and cotton fields is certainly also to blame for the disappearance of wild silk moths. Whereas fire is used as a method for clearing forests for agricultural purposes, poorly managed bushfires are a further problem. Finally, the illegal cutting of trees for firewood by local women has had a dramatic impact on the host plant of the silkworm. This puts these women in a difficult situation, however, since they depend on wood for making fire to prepare meals.

As cocoons have become harder to find over the last few decades, collectors have been forced to travel further afield into the savannas and forests of Ivory Coast, Guinea Conakry, and Nigeria in search of this precious material, which has made their work far more perilous and costly than it has been in the past.28 As a result, for many of them it has become economically unviable. In addition, the scarcity of cocoons has led to a notable decline in the production of wild silk textiles, which have become obsolete in many places where silk is no longer available and where traditional textiles have been replaced by nylon, kapok fibre, or cotton dyed with vegetable dyes, mud, and cow dung to imitate silk. Lastly, not only the material but also knowledge and techniques are under threat in the absence of the raw material. The lack of profitability for young women is leading to an interruption in the intergenerational transmission of this material practice, which means that the techniques are dying out with the last generation of practitioners. The production of wild silk textiles has become too costly not only due to the price of the silk but also because of the expense of production. Wild silk textiles are also losing the commercial battle against industrially produced cloth, which is cheaper, more widely available, and considered more fashionable in towns. The threat to wild-silk-producing species has had a detrimental effect on the hand production of textiles in the region and thus also on local economies, which further increases the threat to wild silk knowledge and its techniques.

Conclusion

Owing to its complex materiality, wild silk defies our common perception and understanding of silk and the passage of time. In this blog West African wild silks have been briefly explored in their relation to time as a conjuncture of material temporalities. They have been described in terms of the historical trajectories of silk, the life cycle of the material as symbolically embedded in the lives of Marka-Dafing women, and the depletion and endangerment of the species in order to highlight ways in which this prestigious and durable material, produced by vulnerable species, comes into being culturally while simultaneously facing the threat of coming to an end. Time as an entanglement of the different temporalities of the wild silks can be understood within relations of causality, since environmental changes that are largely caused by human activities affect the life cycles and survival of the species, threatening to bring to a close the long historical trajectory of wild silks.

Acknowledgments

The author acknowledges the support of the Cluster of Excellence ‘Matters of Activity: Image Space Material’ funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2025 – 390648296; the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP) supported by the Arcadia Fund at The British Museum, the ANR “Matters and culture: the wide world of wild silks” (WILDSILKS-ANR-19-CE27-0020 / AAPG2019) funded by the French Agence nationale de la recherche.
The author would like to thank Lisa Onaga and the ‘Body of animals’ working group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin; the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique et Technologique (CNRST) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (research permit); the Marka-Dafing silk producers of the Mouhoun region; Lossani Dayo, Lingani Séré, and Salif Sawadogo, for their technical assistance; Sophie Desrosiers (EHESS, ANR WILDSILKS) for her feedback.

  1. The mulberry (Morus) is a tree on which Bombyx mori silkworms exclusively feed. []
  2. See for instance R. Peigler, ‘Wild Silks of the World’, American Entomologist 39, no. 3 (1993): 151–162; A.Vallard, S.Desrosiers, L.Douny, S.Cersoy, R.Rougerie ‘Silks: entomological, cultural and material perspectives’ paper in preparation. []
  3. The Bombyx mori has a long history of domestication which started several millennia ago. The oldest remains of silk textiles date back to the fourth millennium BCE or, as some research suggests, between 5000 and 6000–7000 BCE. See for instance P. Hao, ‘Sericulture and Silk Weaving from Antiquity to the Zhou Dynasty’, in Chinese Silks, ed. D. Kuhn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 68, 64–113. A probable origin of Bombyx mori has been attributed to its closest relative, the wild silk moth Bombyx mandarina. See K. P. Arunkumar, M. Metta, and J. Nagaraju, ‘Molecular phylogeny of silkmoths reveals the origin of domesticated silkmoth, Bombyx mori from Chinese Bombyx mandarina and paternal inheritance of Antheraea proylei mitochondrial DNA’, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 40, no. 2 (2006): 419–427. []
  4. Mainly because wild silk yarns are often made of fibres that are spun discontinuously (as observed in West Africa), a process that gives them a thicker texture than those made of Bombyx mori filaments, which are spun continuously and are far more lustrous than yarns spun with wild silk. []
  5. In other parts of West Africa, such as in south-western Nigeria, the Yoruba weave wild silk yarns into wrappers, while in northern Nigeria the yarns are intricately embroidered on gowns and caps by Hausa artisans. []
  6. There are three major families of wild-silk-producing species in Africa: Saturniidae (Epiphora and Argema species), Lasiocampidae (Gonometa species), and Thaumetopoeidae (Anaphe, Epanaphe, and Hyposoides species). See A. T. Kebede, S. K. Raina, J. M. Kabaru, ‘Structure, Composition, and Properties of Silk from the African Wild Silkmoth, Anaphe panda (Boisduval) (Lepidoptera: Thaumetopoeidae)’, International Journal of Insect Science 6, no. 1 (2020): 9. []
  7. Wild silk is found in Ghana, where it has been traded by Marka-Dafing merchants who have also collected cocoons in Guinea Conakry and Ivory Coast. Wild silk is also produced by the Dogon of Mali. []
  8. And, in a similar conception, the Dogon of Mali. []
  9. In this blog ‘conjuncture’ does not refer to structural Marxism. []
  10. See L.Onaga and L.Douny, ‘Making Animal Materials in Time’, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 53 no. 3 (2023) : 197–220. []
  11. See I. L. Good, J. M. Kenoyer, and R. H. Meadow, ‘New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization’, Archaeometry 51 (2008): 457–466; J. M. Kenoyer, ‘Textiles and Trade in South Asia during the Proto-Historic and Early Historic Period’, in Silk: Trade and Exchange along the Silk Roads between Rome and China in Antiquity, ed. B. Hildebrandt (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017), 18. []
  12. J. E. Hill, Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. An Annotated Translation of the Chronicle on the ‘Western Regions’ in the Hou Hanshu (Charleston, SC: BookSurge, 2009), 25. Earlier sources reporting the use of wild silks in Greece and Persia in the late fifth century BCE are mentioned by Hill in ‘Appendix C: Wild Silks’, in ibid., 477–480. []
  13. See S. Desrosiers, ‘Note sur le damas et sur le “voile” de soie d’Essouk-Tadmekka’, in Essouk-Tadmekka: An Early Islamic Trans-Saharan Market Town, ed. S. Nixon (Leyden: Brill, 2017), 393–399. Ongoing analysis of these materials is being undertaken to further identify the type of silk (Sophie Desrosiers, personal communication). []
  14. See K. P. Kent, ‘West African Decorative Weaving’, African Arts, 6 no. 1 (1972): 35. On the use of silk in the nineteenth century, see T. E. Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee (London: John Murray, 1819), 331, quoted in K. Arhin, ‘Aspects of the Ashanti Northern Trade in the Nineteenth Century’, Africa 40, no. 4 (1970): 365. []
  15. See M. Johnson, ‘Calico Caravans: The Tripoli-Kano Trade after 1880’, The Journal of African History, 17, no. 1 (1976): 97, 100–102. Note that waste silk or spun Bombyx mori silk was a by-product of the industrial production of Bombyx mori filament. []
  16. See P. J. Shea, ‘Kano and the Silk Trade’, Kano Studies, New Series 2, no. 1 (1980): 96–112. []
  17. P. J. Shea, ‘Textiles Technology in Nigeria: Some Practical Manifestations’, in The Historical Development of Science and Technology in Nigeria, ed. G. T. Emeagwali (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1992), 112. []
  18. See P. J. Shea, 1980 (see footnote 16), 101–102. []
  19. See L. Douny, ‘Hausa Silk-Embroidered Garments: Transformative Processes and Material Identities’, Journal of Material Culture 16 no. 3 (2012): 156–164. []
  20. These dates are based on the calculation of genealogies of the wild silk producers and collectors. Further field-based historical research on West African wild silks as well as on museum and private collections and archives is ongoing. []
  21. A full operational sequence about making this wrapper will appear on the EMKP online repository. []
  22. Whereas the long-distance collection of silk – for instance, in neighbouring countries – is carried out by Marka-Dafing men with the help of local populations, the collection of the cocoons in Western Burkina Faso is carried out by Marka-Dafing men and women. []
  23. The main technical operations that spread over several weeks include: separating, soaking (depending on the hardness of the material), and boiling the various envelopes that constitute the cocoons; then drying, beating, and brushing the mass of entangled filaments; and finally spinning, washing, and stretching the yarns. []
  24. In West Africa a griot (or bard) is a storyteller and musician who generally sings praises, poetry, and family and communities’ history. []
  25. On the global decline of insects, see for instance C. A. Hallmann, M. Sorg, E. Jongejans, et al., ‘More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas’, PLOS ONE 12, no. 10 (2017): e0185809, published 18 Oct 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0185809. []
  26. See M. O. Ashiru, ‘The wild silkworms of Africa: under-utilised and endangered’, Wild Silkmoths 88 (1989): 111–17. []
  27. See M. O. Ashiru, ‘Sericulture in Nigeria’, Indian Silk 18, no. 6 (1979): 17. []
  28. Political instability in some West African countries also makes the collection of cocoons perilous. []
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