History of Kava
Throughout the Pacific Islands, which figure so prominently in romantic literature, it is nearly impossible to have a discussion about the history of their various cultures without speaking of the mysterious, cultivated shrub known as kava. Sometimes referred to by its scientific name, Piper methysticum, as well as kava kava, keu, awa, ava and yogana, kava produces a slightly bitter, slightly frothy, aromatic, resinous brew capable of inducing tranquility and an ultimate sense of well being.
In more traditional, tribal cultures, children are given the task of chewing the roots and lower stems (lateral roots and rhizomes) of the plant to produce the brew made from kava. The mouths of children are generally more disease free than those of adults, and their teeth are stronger as well, so they make ideal candidates for chewing the root. As they gnaw away on a mouthful, they spit the extraction into a large wooden bowl. The alkaline saliva of the mouth with its salivary enzymes promotes the extraction of the active ingredients marindin and dihydromethylsticin.
When looking at the historical context of this practice, native peoples claim that the elixir produced in this manner is much tastier than that which is mechanically grated. Hygienic considerations have led the French and English to prohibit such chewing and spitting, but there is no stopping cultural tradition.
Then, the kava root mixture is diluted by the addition of water, and the mixture is strained into coconut bowls. One half of such a bowl is enough to induce a state of well-being and a slight torpor which may terminate in tranquility lasting several hours. Such contentment seems to bring no cessation of reason, and active discussions occupy the participants. States of anxiety and restlessness have been recorded as reactions to large amounts of the astringent beverage. Such observations suggest that the exudate includes a more complex pattern of alkaloids, which might include some analeptics.
It is now possible to purchase bags of dried and powdered root bark from various places on the internet. A brew from this source lacks the aromatic properties of the freshly made kava and is not true to the flavor, but it can give one an idea of the experience if they are not lucky enough to witness the rich history of kava in the Pacific islands first-hand.
Oceanic cultures vary in the importance they attach to the use of kava. Samoa has perhaps the most interesting historical use of the brew, and in Manua legend states that kava was first given by the Sun God to Tagaloa Ui, the first high chief of the Samoans. The legend begins with the sacrifice to the sun of a young virgin, Fituita, at the place where the sun rises. Her fate was to be that of other virgins who were each year devoured by the sun.
However, one year a girl by the name of Ui was offered, and so great was her beauty that the sun god took her to be his bride. When she became pregnant by this solar deity and wished to return for a visit with her people to give birth, consent was granted and she was sent flying through the sky at a tremendous speed. As a result, she miscarried and her baby was flung into the ocean.
All was not lost, as the legend goes, for a hermit crab found it tended to the infant, along with a plover and a shrike. The boy grew under the guidance of this unlikely trio into Tagaloa Ui. It was he who taught mortals how to make kava, as well as the reverential ceremony that surrounds its use.
Pava, the first mortal to participate in the ceremony, had a son who laughed at the antics of his father as he attempted to prepare this brew for Tagaloa Ui. In god-like wrath, Tagaloa Ui cut the son into two pieces to the dismay of Pava, and then proceeded to instruct Pava in the correct manner of preparing kava. After a wooden bowl was filled with kava, Pava offered it to Tagaloa Ui, who did not drink it, but poured it on half of Pava’s dead son and uttered “soifua”, or life. At this pronouncement the boy was made whole again and Pava clapped his hands in joy.
With the admonition that kava pertains to high chiefs and is sacred, Tagaloa Ui took his leave. Rituals since that day involve the pronouncement and clapping of hands.
This elaborate myth encompasses all of human kind’s relationships to the sun, the sky, water, the earth, as well as plants and animals. It also refers to the attributes of the “Divine Being,” the mortal self, birth, death, resurrection, marriage, mystical spirit flight and shamanic transformation. The essence of many myths in diverse areas of the world also include references to this psychoactive plant. This ritual use of kava remains most intact today in Samoa. and throughout all of Oceania. Throughout the oceanic area, in general, kava bars are not uncommon and are becoming the coffeehouses of this great area.
It’s important to note that although we cite Samoan myths regarding Kava, it is widely accepted that Vanuatu is the true origin of kava. We address that very question in our “Origin of Kava / Where Kava Originated” article elsewhere on our website. To say that one knows the exact location where kava originated is only speculating, but it’s interesting to read the theories and wonder.
Lastly, for an in-depth look at all of the individual islands of Oceania, from Hawaii to Fiji and more, look to the “Geography of Kava” page elsewhere on our website as well. We’ve got complete cultural histories and how they relate to Kava Kava.