Pacific Islanders Accused of Trading “Black Market” Kava in Australia

Pacific Islanders Accused of Trading "Black Market" Kava in AustraliaAloha, kava lovers, Kava Guru here! As you all know, I will always champion making kava freely available to all who wish to access her many benefits to health and happiness. However, a recent news article made me ponder just how important it is to establish firm cultural guidelines governing the use of kava kava, just as have been set down in the South Pacific for countless millennia. Although the story I am about to relate pertains to the state of kava in Australia, I believe it has many lessons for how we view kava and its uses in the West.

A recent Radio Australia program highlighted remarks by Australia’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, about the use of kava in Australia’s remote northern Arnhem Land. Scullion stated there is currently a problem with illegal diversion of large amounts of kava into Arnhem Land—as much as 35 tons of powdered kava root—specifically targeted to the market of some 3000 regular kava users in the region. The amounts of kava being smuggled (his words) into Australia far exceed the legal limit of two kilos of dried kava root that visitors are allowed to bring through customs in their luggage. This small amount, suitable for personal use, is allowed under Australia’s laws so that Pacific Islanders entering the country can still pursue their traditions involving kava while in Australia.

However, Scullion also attributed the kava smuggling to South Pacific visitors (specifically Tongans), whom he believes are the main group responsible for diverting commercial amounts of kava into Arnhem Land for illicit sale. Scullion promised a “crackdown” by Australian authorities on large-scale diversions of kava intended for sale in Arnhem Land. There was also a recent motion to ban kava in Arnhem Land in response to this issue.

Watching the story unfold from the United States, all this uproar around kava in Australia struck me as faintly absurd. Why would Australia protest the increasing availability of a beneficial herb like kava into Arnhem Land when the Australian government already approved kava’s sale there in the early 1980s? However, appended to the news story was an interview with Alan Clough, a researcher with the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine in Queensland, who made the valuable point that indigenous people in Arnhem Land are using kava much differently than populations in the South Pacific. While Tonga, Vanuatu and other South Pacific countries have centuries of cultural regulations and protocols governing the way kava can be used, these regulations don’t exist in Arnhem Land; Clough said there is more potential for people to overuse kava out of boredom, or as a way to escape from the reality of low employment opportunities and lack of other activities in Arnhem Land.

Waterfall at Kakadu Park, Northern Territory of Australia

He noted that since the indigenous people of Arnhem Land have only been exposed to kava for about thirty years, there is greater potential for its abuse because it lacks a cultural context. Relatedly, indigenous peoples exposed to alcohol after European contact often experienced higher rates of alcoholism and damage to their social structures (in addition to the more direct damage European colonists did to the indigenous cultures they encountered). Of course, when used in the doses common to the South Pacific or in Western medicine, kava does not carry the health risks of alcohol. Yet Clough stated that kava does begin to have health effects when taken frequently at heavy doses, which is often how it’s used by regular kava users in Arnhem Land. Clough suggested that kava begins to manifest negative health effects at doses of about 350 grams of dried root power per week. These effects include reddened eyes; elevated blood platelet count; kava dermatopathy (a reversible kava-induced skin rash); shortness of breath; and changes in the levels of the liver enzyme gamma-glutamyl-transferase (GGT), although these changes did not indicate liver inflammation in the people he examined (Clough 2003). Clough also mentioned the possibility of malnutrition due to kava becoming the staple item of heavy users’ diet.

Equally troubling, other studies discovered that Arnhem Land residents often used kava in combination with alcohol. Experiments with mice have shown that administering kava and alcohol in combination may potentiate greater hypnotic and toxic effects than either substance taken alone (D’Abbs 1997). Additionally, while kava by itself has been proven experimentally not to impair cognitive function, kava and alcohol combined do have a deleterious effect on both subjective and measured cognitive performance in humans (D’Abbs 1997, 9). Ironically, kava was originally introduced to Arnhem Land in the 1980s as a alternative to alcohol, whose high usage rates were causing negative health and social outcomes in the community. Both frequent drinking and petrol sniffing were two risky behaviors engaged in by people in these communities who faced a real or perceived lack of options.

Arnhem Land’s rocky history suggests to me that simply taking away kava is not a solution to the region’s problems. In fact, this could lead to more problems as residents turn to much worse alternatives such as alcohol. Dr. Clough’s comments on the situation got me thinking—what if, instead of just banning kava, Australia turned the focus toward educating people about the best practices for using kava? What if they could create a stable cultural context around kava, just as there has been for dozens of generations in the South Pacific? My guru instincts suggest that creating such a context of safe and positive uses for kava could only improve the situation in Arnhem Land!

Another key leg of the effort to improve things in Arnhem Land would be development—putting some effort and dollars into creating infrastructure and opportunities for employment and prosperity that don’t currently exist in the region. Sitting around drinking kava (or anything) all day is likely more a result of apathy, of feeling like they have no future and nothing better to do, than of the availability of kava. One suggestion for economic improvement that got me especially excited was a proposal made by community leaders for the development of a “yolgnu”, or indigenous, kava trade: basically, instead of their only source of kava being controlled from the outside (by legal or illicit channels), Arnhem Land communities would take control of the import, sale and distribution of kava with the approval of the Australian government. A control board assembled of appointees from each kava-using community could regularly convene to negotiate on matters of trade and see that the profits from the wholesaling of kava go back to the communities of Arnhem Land.

Readers, I don’t know about you, but my excitement is palpable at this idea. What a wonderful proposal to put the control of kava back into the hands of Arnhemlanders! I sincerely hope that this proposal gains traction so that the people of Arnhem Land can enjoy all the benefits of kava within a well-defined cultural context that puts their future in their own hands again!


Kava Guru


Clough, A.R., C.B. Burns, and N. Mununggurr. 2000. “Kava in Arnhem Land: a review of consumption and its social correlates.” Drug and Alcohol Review 19: 319-28.

Clough A.R., R.S. Bailie, B. Currie.  “Liver function test abnormalities in users of aqueous kava extracts”.  Journal of Toxicology. 2003. 41(6):821-9.)

D’Abbs, Peter and Chris Burn. September 1997. “Draft report on inquiry into the issue of kava regulation”. Sessional Committee on the Use and Abuse of Alcohol by the Community.

Hill, Bruce. “Pacific Islanders accused of Australian black market kava trade”. Radio Australia. Last modified November 25th, 2014.

Did Shaman Ever Use Kava?

Dear Kava Guru,

Did shaman ever use kava?


Boston, MA

This is an interesting and complicated question, and I’ll do my best to give a clear answer. Kava is unlike many plant medicines used in ceremonies in that it was used in many other non-ceremonial contexts as well, including as a social relaxant that commoners as well as nobles could easily access. However, kava also did—and still does—have its place in ritual divinations and ceremonies in which indigenous priests and magic workers made contact with their gods and ancestors. So yes, in a sense indigenous shamanic figures have used kava sacramentally! However, kava has also been used ritually in far broader contexts than divination and religious ceremonies, a fact that sets it apart from many ritual shamanic plant medicines.

Substances for shamanic or ritual use are usually plants or fungi with physiological and psychoactive effects, some of them subtle, some less so. Many shamanic plants are used only in ceremonies and are considered quite powerful, necessitating their removal from the realm of the everyday. Others, such as kava, wine, coca leaf, and even coffee, are used both in ritual and social contexts [1]. According to traditional belief systems, kava is believed to facilitate contact with ancestors, gods, and spirits of the departed [2]. For many indigenous South Pacific Islanders, consuming kava is not only a ritual act but one that maintains the connection to the spirit world [2]. However, a big difference between kava and many other ceremonial plant medicines is that its consumption was not restricted to priests or shaman but could be experienced by anyone.

In fact, the kava ceremony has remained an integral part of social bonding all across the South Pacific probably for hundreds if not thousands of years. Important occasions such as coronations, weddings, and naming ceremonies for infants all include ritual kava consumption in the proceedings. In ritual contexts like these, consuming kava is believed to encourage good fortune and propitiate gods and ancestors [2]. On the Hawaiian Islands, common folk such as farmers and fishers would frequently offer the gods libations of ‘awa (kava) to ensure a bountiful harvest or catch [3]. Along with red fish, cocoa nuts, and wild boar, kava was among the traditional offerings made during the crafting of a koa (wooden canoe): a kahuna, or Hawaiian shaman, would retire to the forest for a few days to consult the gods and find the perfect tree to harvest. Then he would lead a party from the village into the forest to make the ritual offerings before felling the tree and taking it back to the village [3]. In a similar ritual use in Fiji and nearby regions, libations of kava are sometimes poured on the ground to commemorate the naming of a new ship[4].

You might be able to see why it can be difficult to separate kava’s magical uses from its larger ritual context; yet there are some traditional kava ceremonies that carry a distinct shamanic tone. For instance, Hawaiian kahuna have long taken kava as a way of obtaining divine inspiration from indigenous deities. For this purpose, a special varietal of kava called Hiwa, or black kava, was often used [5]. Typically the kahuna would first offer some of the sacred ‘awa to the deity he wanted to call on for inspiration, by sprinkling or pouring some of the prepared ‘awa onto a carved image of the deity. In cases where there was no image, the kahuna might sprinkle a bit of ‘awa into the air before consuming the leftover portion [6].

Priests also used kava brews as a divination tool: in a practice similar to reading tea leaves, the practitioner would blow on the surface of a bowl full of prepared kava and interpret the pattern made by the bubbles to determine lucky courses of action [2]. This kind of kava divination was used to name infants (especially boys), diagnose illnesses, and predict the sex of unborn children [2]. Sounds pretty shamanic to me!

Native Fijians also used kava as a divining tool, though there the practice would be done by lay diviners—ordinary people, in other words—as well as priests [3]. Kava has always had a strong connection to themes of death and rebirth in Fijian myth, and some stories claim that kava was a gift from the creator god Degei to the first humans to inhabit the islands [7]. Similarly, indigenous Hawaiians consider kava a gift from the gods Kane and Kanaloa [8]. Kane and Kanaloa are companion deities in the Hawaiian pantheon, with a deep connection both to humans and the natural world that surrounds them: Kane is said to be the ancestor of both chiefs and commoners, and is also the god of sunlight, fresh water, forests, and the growth of plants. Kanaloa—sometimes also called Kane-ma—is the companion of Kane and is the god of the ocean, marine life, and healing [8]. According to legend, in ancient times Kane and Kanaloa brought the kava plant to Hawaii from Kahiki, the ancestral homeland of Hawaiian myth. They planted kava all over the islands, sometimes causing springs to flow in areas where there was no water so that the kava could grow there [9]. There are similar connections between kava and indigenous gods in most areas of the South Pacific, and as a result the plant is always harvested and used with the utmost respect.

It probably comes as no shock that Christian missionaries to the South Pacific Islands tried to ban kava kava. Many believed it allowed the devil into the mind—a common rationale for attempts to ban indigenous plant medicines with ritual use throughout the non-Western world. Of course, kava was also problematic because of the connection it created between indigenous peoples and their deities and spirits, which got in the way of the missionaries’ conversion efforts.

Luckily, today kava kava has returned to its popular status in the South Pacific as a herbal libation that can be enjoyed by one and all. Though kava kava has never been the exclusive province of shamans or priests, I hope this article has helped you gain a bit more appreciation for this wonderful herb’s ritual dimensions, as well as the deep history of reverence and spiritual significance behind its use.


Kava Guru


1. “Entheogen”. Wikipedia. Last modified May 25th, 2014.

2. Wolsey, Lindsay. “History of Kava Kava”. Accessed May 15th, 2014.

3. Malo, David. 1951. Hawaiian Antiquities. Honolulu: B.P. Bishop Museum Press.

4. “Fiji Culture and Kava”. Kava Dot Com. Accessed May 15th, 2014.

5. “Piper methysticum– Strains and Origins”. Wikipedia. Last modified May 14th, 2014.

6. Beckwith, Martha. 1970. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

7. “Fiji Mythology”. Kava Dot Com. Accessed May 27th, 2014.

8. Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert. 1973. Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

9. Handy, E.S. Craighill, Elizabeth Green Handy, and Mary Kawena Pukui. 1972. Native Planters in Old Hawaii: Their Life, Lore, and Environment. Rev. ed. Bulletin 233. Honolulu: B.P. Bishop Museum Press.

What Are Leis For?

What Are Leis For?Most people know leis as those fragrant chains of fresh flowers that get placed around one’s neck at Hawaiian resorts. Yet, you may be wondering, what are leis for in Hawaiian and South Pacific culture beyond promoting tourism? Because it turns out leis are a lot more than a gimmick invented to bolster the tourist industry—in fact, leis have long been used in Polynesia, and later Hawaii, as a way of bestowing love, respect and honor on someone [1].

Though in the popular imagination leis usually take the form of a garland of fresh flowers, my research has uncovered that leis can be made out of all sorts of objects. The only requirement for something to be a lei is that it be a collection of objects woven or strung together into a garland that is typically worn around the neck [2]. Hawaiian and Polynesian leis are frequently made from flowers, with the most common being plumeria, orchids, tuberose and carnations [1]. They may also be made from vines, leaves, seed pods, bone or shell, feathers, even paper money! The only constant is that leis are intended to be worn, and that they function as a sign of affection, honor or respect bestowed on the recipient [2, 3].

The cultural tradition of the lei spread from an origin in Polynesia to Hawaii with the first human immigrants to the islands. People are often given leis at occasions where they are the guest of honor: birthdays, weddings, graduations, retirement parties and the like [3]. With the introduction of Lei Day on May 1st, 1927—the same day as May Day in the rest of the United States—the lei has also become a symbol of cultural solidarity for indigenous Hawaiians. The concept of Lei Day was first proposed in 1927 by Don Blanding, a poet and writer for the Honolulu Star Bulletin. Each island in the Hawaiian archipelago now marks Lei Day with its own color and style of lei woven from native flowers [1].

Even though leis orginated in Polynesia, today they represent a uniquely Hawaiian experience for many tourists, who are often given leis upon their arrival at resorts and other attractions. The type of lei most visitors are familiar with is the plumeria lei, made from fragrant fresh plumeria flowers strung on a cord or string. However, there are many other kinds of lei that are even more significant in indigenous Hawaiian culture. For instance, the maile leaf lei made from the maile vine was once used to cement peace agreements between warring chiefs: the two leaders would meet in a heiau, or temple, to intertwine their maile leaf leis in a symbolic expression of renewed harmony and peace [3].

Fortunately, lei etiquette is pretty casual these days: despite the garland’s ceremonial contexts, it’s also fine for anyone to wear a lei outside of a formal occasion, or even buy one at an airport giftshop [2]. Basically, there are only three rules of lei etiquette you need to follow [3]:

1. Always accept a lei that is given to you. If someone gives you a lei, it is a sign of their respect, affection or esteem for you, so refusing it–or removing it in their presence–is considered rude.

2. If you cannot wear a lei someone gives you (due to allergy, for example), display the lei in a prominent place close to you.

3. Never discard a lei into the trash. A lei is a symbol of respect and love, so throwing it away is like symbolically throwing away the love of that person. Alternatives are to return the lei to the place where the flowers and vines that make it up were collected—or if you don’t have that option, return the lei to a natural spot such as a wooded area where it can return to the earth.

You can also leave your lei to dry in the sun over a few days; dried leis make a great decoration and will also perfume your house with a wonderful tropical fragrance. It’s hard to think of a better way to bring a little piece of the South Pacific back home… except perhaps bringing back a nice bundle of dried kava root!


Kava Guru


1. “Lei (Garland)”. Wikipedia. Accessed April 30th, 2014.

2. “What Are Leis?” WiseGEEK: Clear Answers for Common Questions. Accessed April 22nd, 2014.

3. “The Hawaiian Lei Tradition”. Hawaiian Flower Lei. Accessed April 24th, 2014.

What is the Mythical Origin of Kava?

What is the Mythical Origin of Kava?Before there was Piper methysticum (domesticated kava kava), there was Piper wichmannii – the beautifully original form of the Kava kava plant – wild and perfectly untouched by human contact or cultivation.  We can imagine a tropical world totally innocent of discovery, a world void of commercial extraction and consumption, a world where humans hadn’t yet arrived – or evolved – and the work of spiritual beings was at play.  We can envision spiritual entities that created a fantastical set of islands, populated by creatures and botanical beauty not even imaginable to our human minds – islands where Piper wichmannii was divinely placed to sit and await the fate of her discovery, when the mortals of human kind would be graced with the gift of Kava kava and the origin of kava to be born.

My guru insight tells me that Piper wichmannii very likely evolved alongside many other wild plants whose exact origins are unknown, and it is likely a member of a very long line of botanical ancestry that is quite difficult to trace.  Exact knowledge as to where the alluring Kava kava first originated pretty well escapes historical records.  In order to reconstruct a coherent historical account as to the exact mythological origin (probably usage origin as well) of kava, we are dependent upon antiquated and mythical accounts of Piper methysticum’s wild sister – Piper wichmannii.

Fortunately, Tongan and Vanuatu mythology is rife with tales of Kava’s spiritual and ancestral origins.  There are two conceptually different strains of mythology with regard to the origin of kava kava: the external and local.  The external tales tell of how Piper wichmannii was graced upon the South Pacific peoples by a godly and heroic entity that brought it from a spiritual or far off earthly realm, with varying tales of just who this heroic spirit was or just what exactly happened; whereas the local tales tell the story of the ancestral usage or the cultivation of kava kava [2, p. 14-15].

Mythological accounts of Kava (or the external and local mythological stories) are meant to provide an understanding of the physical origin of Kava kava and its use  – the mythological answer to the question of where Kava came from.  These external tales are brimming with heroism and spiritual beings that are held in the highest esteem for gracing mortal creatures with the gift of the Kava plant.  Many of these folk tales revolve around conceptual structures of life and death, where kava is often idealized as the bringer of life [2, p. 14-15].

One such Tongan legend is of the origin of kingship and is thought to symbolically refer to the origin of Kava itself; it can be categorized as an external account.  It tells of a spiritual entity having intercourse with a female mortal being who then gives birth to a half-god son named Aho eito.  The son, eager to meet with his divine father, climbs an incredibly tall ironwood tree and is met by his father who mistakes him for a spiritual being that is even greater than himself.  The father brings the son to meet his half-brothers who become incessantly jealous of his beauty and received admiration.  The divine siblings then rip Aho eito to pieces and proceed to consume him.  The father suspects what the other sons had done to Aho eito and has them vomit into a bowl.  The vomit is then submersed in water and Aho eito slowly emerges as a whole and living being once again.  The father then sends Aho eito to earth to be the first Tu i Tonga, or king of Tonga [1, p. 287-288].

The vomiting into the bowl by the brothers of Aho eito is thought to symbolically represent the chewing of Kava that is then communally spit into a bowl and mixed with water [1, p. 288].  The resultant Kava drink is then traditionally consumed during ceremonies, often during the installment of chiefs and other cultural heads [3, p. 109-110].  The traditional uses of Kava kava do seem to outline a theme that is similar to the death and rebirth of Aho eito who is eaten and then spit up, mixed with water and reborn as a king on earth, just as the kava plant is traditionally used.

Another such external tale tells of the deity Tagaloa Ui who happens upon the house of the mortal chief Pava while wandering through a field of Kava.  At Pava’s home the first mortal ceremony involving Kava is held.   Pava’s son is rambunctiously running about and making noise and Tagaloa Ui asks Pava to quiet his son.  Pava does not obey and the boy’s behavior continues until Tagaloa Ui cuts the boy into two pieces using a coconut frond that has been formed into a knife.  The deity then instructs Pava to eat his boy and Pava declines.  The deity then uses kava from his mountain home to create a drink that is poured over the pieces of Pava’s boy, while he says “Soifua (life)”, and the boy is then brought back to life.  Again, we can see the theme of divine and mortal interplay interwoven with death, life and high social positions [2, p. 13].

Accounts of the local origins of Kava tell fantastic tales of how the plant was first discovered, grown and used by the South Pacific island peoples.  These local tales are often sexualized and there is frequently a prominent female presence; this presence can manifest in the tales in several forms, such as symbolically as a female sexual organ or as female creatures (human or otherwise).

One such local tale is interwoven with the mythology of the external origin of Kava as having come from a divine hero – which highlights the interconnectedness and consistency of Kava mythology.  This story begins with the hero Mwatiktiki on Tanna – an island in Vanuatu.  Mwatiktiki arrives on Tanna with a Kava plant, which he hides between rocks near the shore.  Two female ancestors of the Tanna people go to the shore with yams and begin to peel the yams there.  One of the women is surprised, as she is squatting in the grass, by the presence of the Kava plant on and within her nether regions – the plant is meant to be a phallic representation. The Kava root had sprouted and risen up, penetrating the women – bringing her much enjoyment. The women pull the wild plant out from between the rocks where Mwatiktiki had hid it and bring it back to their garden in Isouragi – their home – where they presumably began to cultivate it and spread its pleasurable benefits [2, p. 13].

Another local tale tells of the burial of a sister by her brother after the brother had tried to protect her from a suitor she had refused to be with.  The suitor shoots an arrow intended for the brother, misses and kills the sister.  The boy buries his sister and within a week an unusual plant that he hasn’t ever seen before sprouts from the grave of his sister.  At first he leaves the plant alone for quite some time.  One day when he is mourning the death of his sister at the site of her burial he notices a rat nibbling on the plant.  The rat shortly dies.  After observing what happened to the rat the boy, unable to bear the death of his sister any longer, decides to kill himself by eating the plant.  Something unexpected happens.  Rather than dying the boy is rejuvenated, filled with life and happiness.  He forgets his misery and comes back to consume the plant and rejoice and goes on to share the plant with many others [2, p. 12] Once again, we can see how the theme of an external spiritual origin of the kava plant and an adaptation of the central themes of life and death, are woven throughout this tale.

Although we do not presently dwell in these mythical worlds, and may never have dwelt in these worlds – they nonetheless paint a historical account of Kava similar to how religious books might construct a historical account of various religious developments; namely, through symbolic story telling.  These folk accounts can be pieced together to construct an understanding of how aspects of kava culture and tradition began.  Whether these tales give an accurate account of how Piper wichmannii first came to be on this earthy rock of ours, is something that goes beyond my guru wisdom.  But one thing can be said for certain: Piper wichmannii was discovered a long, long time ago in a far-off South Pacific island, amongst creatures and botanical entities too wonderful to comprehend. A mythical legacy thus began and is sure to be carried on for many upon many generations of islanders to come…


Kava Guru


1. James, K.E. “The Female Presence in Heavenly Places: Myth and Sovereignty in Tonga”. Wiley and Oceania Publications: June 1991. Oceania, Vol. 61, 4 pp.287-308.

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

3. 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.



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.


Kava Guru


1. Bula Kafe. “What is a Kava Bar?” Last modified: October 25, 2010.

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.


What Is the True Origin of Kava?

Kava Guru,

Where is Kava Kava from?  Did all Kava originate in Oceania, or was it found elsewhere in the world?

Anastasia, Chicago, IL

The question, “Where did kava originate?” has long been of interest to Kava scholars who have done dedicated research on the plant. The quest for a definitive Kava origin has been complicated by the fact that Oceanic cultures have an oral rather than written history [5] —scholars couldn’t conveniently check an indigenous historical record to trace Kava’s origin the way they could with tea or coffee, both of which are surrounded by rich written histories! It was Kava scholar Vincent Lebot who first traced Kava’s origin to northern Vanuatu [2]. More recent botanical and biochemical evidence has helped solidify Vanuatu as the most likely place of origin for kava kava, and Vanuatu has become the most accepted place of origin [3].

Aside from the evidence briefly outlined above – which I will later go into in more detail – there isn’t much else to go by in determining the origin of kava kava as we know it. We know Kava as a drink made from a root of a pepper plant called Piper methysticum, and it is the exact origin of this drink and its uses that escapes us along with the physical origin of Piper methysticum. However, the mythological accounts of kava kava – prior to cultivated uses – do offer a fantastical account of how the wild version of Kava (Piper wichmannii) was graced upon our earth by deities and god’s [6]. But, it is the exact origin of Piper methysticum – the cultivated version of the wild plant – that I will be concerned with here.

Origin Possibilities:

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is a member of the pepper family Piperaceae, and early taxonomists attempted to trace Kava’s origin to regions of the world where other pepper species were found. Some early (but now generally discounted) theories speculated that Kava originated in South India or Southeast Asia, regions where the pepper species Piper nigrum (black pepper) and Piper longum (long pepper) are found. These arguments trace the similarities of ceremonial and ritualistic procedures in each culture. One scholar suggested an Asian origin for Kava by linking the Kava ceremony to the Chinese tea ceremony [7]! And another scholar outlines the similarities of Kava drinking ceremonies to the ancient Vedic religion of India. There is one ritualistic rule governing Vedic ceremonial traditions that declares that an older brother must offer a sacrifice before his younger brother does and this declaration is directly in line with the order of brothers in a Kava ring ceremonial procedure [5].

One author – John Lynch – actually goes so far as to say that the argument of origin is clearly divided in two: one line arguing for a New Guinea origin and another arguing for an origin in Vanuatu. As was indicated in the introduction, most scholars have accepted Vanuatu as the true origin and Lynch is among those scholars [4]. While I will later go into more detail about why Vanuatu has been accepted as the true origin, I will here briefly outline why there is such a pervasive argument about a possible New Guinea origin.  It is widely accepted that Piper methysticum (cultivated Kava) was domesticated and adapted from Piper wichmannii (wild Kava). Quite simply put, the most prevailing evidence to suggest that domesticated Kava originated in New Guinea is that the largest diversity of wild Kava is found there; New Guinea has the single most diverse population of the Piper wichmannii plant. As the theory goes, Piper methysticum cannot self propagate or at least very rarely does so; the Piper methysticum plant requires human interaction in order to continue growth and adaptation [4]. In fact, domestic varieties of kava kava are said to essentially be sterile and can only be propagated by grafting or dividing the root bundle of a parent plant [2]. Furthermore, there are forty variants of words intended to refer to Kava in New Guinea that have so far been recorded [5]. So, these bits of information have led some scholars to conclude then that New Guinea must be the place of origin of Kava. However, Lynch along with other authors such as Vincent Lebot, still side with the argument that leans toward Vanuatu as the origin of Kava.

Accepted Origin:

Lebot used morphological evidence to argue that kava kava likely originated on Vanuatu [2]. Lebot observed that Vanuatu grows over 80 morphotypes of Kava — Kava strains that are distinguishable based on their physical appearance. In contrast, other South Pacific regions Lebot examined have far fewer morphotypes: 12 in Fiji, 7 in Tonga, and 6 in Samoa. Furthermore, there is also a much greater diversity of names for kava kava in local Vanuatuan languages, which Lebot took to mean that Kava had more time to diversify and spread on Vanuatu than elsewhere. Finally, Vanuatu is also home to two wild varieties of kava kava, while other South Pacific Islands have no wild Kava varieties at all. As a result, Lebot suggests that Vanuatu may have been the point of origin for domestic Kava, which was then spread to other South Pacific islands by trade [2]. Lynch goes on to say then that, if this Vanuatu origin of Kava were correct, Kava would have arrived in New Guinea via Micronesia and Polynesia or perhaps even from Vanuatu through the Soloman Islands [4].

Chemotype Specifics:

Current researchers are trying to narrow down Kava’s point of origin even further within the Vanuatuan archipelago, with some favoring an origin on Maewo Island, or possibly Pentecost Island [3]. This research is focused on identifying clusters of specific Kava chemotypes as a reliable way of determining both Kava’s origin and the pattern in which it spread to other regions of the South Pacific [3]. The Kava Guru understands chemotype to be a very useful tool in identifying different strains of plants and other organisms. While a morphotype refers to strains of a single species that differ in their outward characteristics, a chemotype means a variety of organism (commonly a plant or microorganism) that produces a chemical metabolite that distinguishes it as a class from other varieties of the same species [1]. In essence, plants of the same species can be different chemotypes, meaning they can have the same physical appearance but a different chemical makeup.

In Kava’s case, different chemotypes are defined based on the ratios of kavalactones in their roots. There are five known chemotypes of kava kava, all of which contain differing ratios of kavalactones in their roots. As it turns out, all five chemotypes are represented among the Kava varieties grown in Vanuatu [3]. Kava’s five distinct chemotypes are not found in one place anywhere else in the South Pacific, which further suggests that kava kava may have originated and diversified on Vanuatu before being spread to other South Pacific regions.

Well, there you have it: not only does Vanuatu grow some of the strongest, most medicinal Kava on the market, it may very well be kava kava’s original home. That would certainly explain Vanuatu Kava’s notable, mouth-numbing potency! And with that thought, the Kava Guru is off to the nakamal for the evening…


Kava Guru


1. “Chemotype.” Wikipedia, Accessed March 6th, 2014.

2. Lindstrom, Lamont, Vincent Lebot, and Mark David Merlin. Kava: The Pacific Elixir – The Definitive Guide to its Ethnobotany, History and Chemistry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

3. Lindstrom, Lamont. “History, Folklore, Traditional and Current Uses of Kava”, in Kava: From Ethnology to Pharmacology, edited by Yadhu N. Singh. CRC Press, 2004.

4. Lynch, John. “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava”. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 41 (2): December, 2002, p. 493-518.

5. Singh N. Yadhu. “Kava: An Overview”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Vol. 37: 1992, p. 13-45.

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

7. “What is kava?” Accessed March 6th, 2014.