Species identification of silks by protein mass spectrometry reveals evidence of wild silk use in antiquity.
Lee B., Pires E., Pollard AM., McCullagh JSO.
Silk has been a luxurious commodity throughout modern human history and sericulture has played an important role in ancient global trade as well as technological and cultural developments. Archaeological findings suggest that prior to domestication of the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori) silks were obtained from a range of silk-producing moth species with regional specificity. However, investigating the origins of sericulture is difficult as classification of silks by species-type has proved technically challenging. We therefore investigated a range of methods for solubilising modern and archaeological silks and developed a mass spectrometry-based proteomics method that was able to successfully differentiate modern Bombyx, Antheraea, and Samia-produced silks down to the species level. We subsequently analysed archaeological silk materials excavated from the ancient city of Palmyra. Solubilisation behaviour and proteomic analysis provided evidence that the Palmyra silks were constructed from wild silk derived from Antheraea mylitta, the Indian Tasar silkworm. We believe this is the first species-level biochemical evidence that supports archaeological theories about the production and trade of Indian wild silks in antiquity.