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  —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 . 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 .
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 . But, it is the exact origin of Piper methysticum – the cultivated version of the wild plant – that I will be concerned with here.
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 ! 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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . Furthermore, there are forty variants of words intended to refer to Kava in New Guinea that have so far been recorded . 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.
Lebot used morphological evidence to argue that kava kava likely originated on Vanuatu . 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 . 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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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…
1. “Chemotype.” Wikipedia, Accessed March 6th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemotype.
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?” Kavaroot.com. Accessed March 6th, 2014. http://www.kavaroot.com/what-is-kava