When Was Kava First Used?

Dear Kava Guru,

When was Kava first used and can you tell me a little bit about the history of Kava in general?

Mitch, Carmel, CA

In the beginning – a long, long time ago there was kava kava in its most raw and untamed, wildly beautiful and organic form, Piper wichmannii.   The exact origin of Piper wichmannii seems to be indeterminate, although mythical accounts speak of heroes and gods as the  beings responsible for introducing Piper wichmannii to the South Pacific regions, having imported it from some far off nation or spiritual realm [6, p. 14-15].

Although I have reviewed many sources – an exact date or date range does not seem to be identifiable for when or where wild kava kava (Piper wichmannii) was first used before it was domesticated.  As Yadhu Singh, who writes about kava at great length and across many well-cited texts, says: “Kava usage itself is much older than any documented history of this part of the world and oral traditions do not seem to have brought forward relevant, reliable, or consistent accounts” [6, p. 51].

The first dated records of domesticated kava kava (Piper methysticum) surface with the colonization of the South Pacific Islands in the 17th and early 18th century [7, p. 108].  Captain James Cook made records in the 18th century about his visit to the South Pacific that explained the narcotic effects of the kava plant that were experienced by his crewmembers upon ingestion – this log was dated for 1785.  Additionally, there is an even earlier log (1769) of a drawing by Captain Cook’s botanist of the kava plant and it can still be viewed in the London Natural History Museum today [6, p. 5].

John Lynch discusses at some length the linguistic history of the word “kava” and concludes that this information may give some idea of the plant’s domestic origins.  It is possible that the word “kava” has its roots in the Proto-Oceanic term kawaRi – which may refer to the wild kava (Piper wichmannii) that domesticated kava was derived from.  If this is the case, then it is likely that the original use of kava in its wild form was specific to the Oceanic region of Melanesia – and more specifically to Papua New Guinea.   However, botanical evidence seems to suggest that kava kava was first domesticated in Vanuatu [4].  So, ultimately – it seems to be indisputable that kava kava is Oceanic in domestic origin and specifically Melanesian, but whether or not it was first domesticated in Vanuatu or New Guinea is unclear.

Domesticated kava kava or the kava kava that we are all familiar with – Piper methysticum – is consistently referenced as having its origins in Vanuatu.  Although, some sources do fall more in line with the view that domesticated kava kava originated in New Guinea [4].  However, the argument for the Vanuatu origin does make a strong case, by suggesting that New Guinea did not have the resources necessary for domesticated kava cultivation [4]. And given that domesticated kava is dependent upon human interaction for survival [7, p. 108], I would say that this line of argument is also quite possible.

As Lynch mentions, this seems to lead to two veins of thought on the origin of domesticated kava: the origin within Papua New Guinea, and the origin within Vanuatu – neither can be wholly substantiated [4].  As Singh said, kava kava “…might be considered the one item in their material culture that linked together most of the peoples of Oceania” [7, p. 13], indicating just how widespread the use of kava was and still is.

The Historical Usage:

Historically kava kava was primarily used for ceremonial/ritualistic and sociopolitical purposes, although kava kava has also been used for medicinal purposes as far back as the domesticated origins of kava kava.  The ceremonial procedures revolved around a link to indigenous gods and the overall spirituality of the Oceanic peoples – such as an honoring of ancestry. Traditionally, the root and lower parts of kava kava are dried in the sun and then broken down into a powder that is then steeped in water.  The mixture is then massaged and strained using hibiscus tree bark and  distributed in half coconut shells.   However, during less ritualistic ceremonies, such as the installment of chiefs or resolution of conflicts, a cloth is often used instead of the hibiscus tree bark [8, p. 109-110]

The Banning:

Because of the link to non-Christian gods and other spiritual purposes of using kava kava – such as the initiation or lifting of curses – Christian missionaries that first landed in the 17th and 18th centuries proceeded to ban all use and growth of Piper methysticum.  Some missionary groups went so far as to buy kava kava plantations and then have them destroyed. Given the necessity of domesticated strains to be cultivated by humans, the plant died out in many areas across the Oceanic islands due to this forced neglect. Where blatant methods of destruction did not suffice to eradicate all of the plants, missionaries took to attacking the “unsanitary” method of kava preparation – namely, the chewing and spitting of the root into a communal bowl (the saliva aided in the breaking down of the plant’s active substances) [7, p. 113].

However, this monotheistic banning of kava kava was not universal across the islands and some Christian denominations actually began to incorporate the use of kava kava in their own ceremonies [7, p. 115].  I think that this sporadic acceptance of kava kava as well as the colonial accumulation of foreign materials is likely how kava first began to trickle from the South Pacific islands into European countries and elsewhere.

European and Western History:

However, it wasn’t until about 30-40 years ago that kava kava began to seep out of the South Pacific and grow in popularity in the Western and European world.  Kava kava first began to gain popularity locally as the South Pacific Islands gained their political independence and adopted the Piper methysticum plant as a kind of national identifier.   As immigrants from these South Pacific regions began immigrating to the United States and Europe, kava kava began to gain popularity amongst South Pacific cultural pockets within those regions. Once herbal medicine became more widely accepted and gained popularity within the United States and European nations, kava kava naturally grew in popularity as well [6, p. 43-44], and was primarily sought as an alternative to pharmaceutical treatments of anxiety and other neurological disorders.

The Commercialization of Kava:

Kava bars initially began developing across the South Pacific islands and local regions [11].  As these regions gained political independence and adopted the Piper methysticum plant as their national identifier, kava became more and more a socially used plant – although it does still retain its medicinal and ceremonial use [6, p. 43].  As kava became socialized, so to speak, so did the places where it would be frequently consumed – hence the birth of the “kava bar”.

The kava bar has very recently begun making an appearance in Europe and the United States.  Nakava, initially named Nakamal, was the first kava bar to open its doors in the United States of America in 2002 and it has since gained a Floridian following for kava kava – a popularity that has since seeped into other states and will likely continue to grow [1].

A Look to the Future:

Although kava has been banned in Australia and many European countries, such as the ban in Germany as of 2002 [9], there has recently been a growing acceptance of the plant and some European bans were lifted in 2008 [5].   As of yet, there hasn’t been any entirely concrete evidence indicating why kava kava should be banned and it is growing in popularity as a casual drink at kava bars and in European and Western homes.   Furthermore, kava kava has been growing in popularity as a medicinal alternative to Western anxiety medication. German physicians prescribed kava kava as early as 1990 [10].

Many Oceanic countries are driving toward universal acceptance of kava kava and have succeeded in many cases.  Initially the bans greatly agitated the kava trade and production within Oceanic countries, with a claimed annual net loss of $US200 million [9].  This loss was recorded in 2003, just after the 2002 European bans, which would then suggest that these bans greatly affected the kava-growing and trading regions.  However, this would also suggest that with the lifting of many European bans in 2008, the trade will greatly grow and kava culture will likely become stronger and more pronounced as it is more widely accepted.  Additionally, one of the most prominent issues that the European and Western world has had with kava is the lack of standardization.  But, as of 1999 the South Pacific regional organization,  Pacific Island Kava Council, had a meeting and agreed upon publishing a producer’s manual for standardization purposes [6, p. 40-41].

As standardization methods are increased and conspirator scares deflated, it is safe to say that Piper methysticum will live on forever and ever, to give the people of this world all of the calming and beautiful benefits that the peoples of the South Pacific islands have enjoyed for many upon many peaceful centuries past.

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

REFERENCES

1. Bula Kafe. “What is a Kava Bar?” Last modified: October 25, 2010. http://www.bulakafe.com/general-info/what-is-a-kava-bar.html

2. Ives, Laurel. “Make Mine a Kava”.  Sunday Times, London UK: January 31, 2000.  Ed. 1GZ.

3. Krape, Micheal. “Taste of Kava Culture”. Sunday Herald Sun: October 14, 2007.

4. Lynch, John. “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava”. University of Hawai’i Press: December, 2002. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 41 – 2, pp. 493-513.

5. Pollock, Nancs J. “Sustainability of the Kava Trade”.  University of Hawai’i Press: Fall of 2009.  The Contemporary Pacific, Vol. 21 pp. 265-297.

6. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: from ethnology to pharmacology”. Taylor and Francis LTD: 2004.

7. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: an overview”. Elsevier Scientific Publishers Ireland Ltd: 1992.  Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Vol. 37 pp. 13-45.

8. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: An Old Drug in a New World”. University of Minnesota Press: winter of 2009. Cultural Critique, No. 71 pp. 107-128

9. The Fiji Times. “Europe Lifts Ban on Kava”. Suva, Fiji: November 2008. Ed. 17

10. The Province. “Kava is Hot Stuff – Final Edition”.  Vancouver, B.C: January 27, 1999. Ed. B13

11. Wikipedia. “Kava Culture – Vanuatu”. Last modified: February 26, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava_culture

 

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