Kava is the name given by Pacific islanders to both Piper methysticum, a shrub belonging to the pepper family Piperaceae, and the psychoactive beverage made from it. P. wichmannii is now seen to be a wild variant of P. methysticum rather than a genuinely distinct species. P. methysticum is a hardy perennial which often grows up to three metres or more. The rootstock or stump contains the psychoactive substances. Its psychoactive constituents are called kavalactones and, despite claims to the contrary, there seem to be no psychoactive alkaloids in kava. The roots and stumps of kava are prepared by pounding, chewing or grinding them and soaking them in cold water. Drinking the resulting infusion has a soporific and narcotic effect. More specifically the user typically feels a state of mild euphoria and tranquillity. The muscles relax and the user remains in control; outbursts such as those precipitated by alcohol are alien to the kava experience. As its effects go on its soporific qualities come to the fore and the user falls asleep. Occasionally drinkers may experience mild side effects such as double vision. Excessive drinking of kava has significant effects on the health particularly skin complaints and loss of appetite.
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)
Unlike betel (also of the pepper family) which became a widely popular stimulant in the Pacific, kava was not imported by man but rather discovered by him on his arrival in the region. Current research suggests that it may have first been domesticated less than 3,000 years ago in Vanuatu (which used to be called the New Hebrides), a group of islands in eastern Melanesia. The use of kava seems then to have diffused both westward to New Guinea and part of Micronesia and eastward into Fiji and then Polynesia. The archaeology of the region has not, as yet, revealed much about the origins and early history of kava use. Part of a fossilised stem, which can only tentatively be suggested as belonging to the kava plant, was discovered at the Talepakemalai site on Eloaua Island north of the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea. It was found in association with a highly decorated style of pottery known as Lapita. The Lapita peoples are thought to be the ancestors of the modern Polynesians and their pottery vessels to be early examples of bowls used in drinking kava. However, things do not fit that neatly together as Lapita artefacts have been found in areas outside the kava-drinking zone. Another theory (developed by the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers), which has largely been abandoned, is that kava-using people were displaced by incoming populations of betel-users who replaced the indigenous drug with their own in some regions of Melanesia. This is now seen as too simplistic and it fails to explain why some cultures in the region use both substances.
An indication of just how important kava cultivation has been in the Pacific is the sheer number of types which the indigenous people recognise. In Vanuatu alone natives are known to classify kava into 247 types! Kava was, and still is in many regions of the Pacific, an important medicine being used in the treatment of rheumatism, menstrual problems, venereal disease, tuberculosis and even leprosy. By putting kava leaves in the vagina, abortions were said to be provoked.
In the mythology and symbolism of the Pacific peoples kava has a distinctly sexual aura. The preparation of kava using the native equivalent of a pestle and mortar in Vanuatu and some Micronesian islands is seen as a symbolic form of sexual intercourse. In both Tonga and Fiji the legs of kava bowls are called breasts. Often the myths relating the origin of kava attribute its genesis or discovery to women, although drinking it is a male prerogative. For women to drink it is perceived by be 'unnatural' and a symbolic form of lesbianism. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, kava is widely recognised as an anaphrodisiac, i.e. reducing the desire for sex.
One of the traditional ways of preparing it was for the chewing of the kava to be performed by children or by a young woman (preferably a virgin). According to Lebot, Merlin and Lindstrom, who have written the definitive study of kava, the ceremony as conducted in Samao: 'required the girl who chewed and infused the kava to sit cross-legged and bare-breasted on a mat behind the kava bowl, with flowers carefully arranged in her hair and her hips swathed in a grass skirt. This presented an image of beauty that added to the aesthetic dimension of kava preparation.' The practice of chewing kava appalled the missionaries, who effectively encouraged its replacement with the more 'genteel' method of grating it. The anthropologist Ron Brunton has noted that: 'from my own experience I suspect that there is little, if any, difference in the effects of kava prepared by the alternative techniques. I have drunk kava prepared by chewing and by grating on many separate occasions in Vanuatu, and with both I have experienced feeling of tranquillity, difficulty in maintaining motor co-ordinations, and eventual somnolence.'
Kava was also of great religious significance and was seen to connect the user with the ancestors and the gods. It was not merely an offering or sacrifice to the spirits but a way of gaining access to the spirit world. It is used in healing ceremonies and to obtain hidden or esoteric knowledge. Its use as a means of divination was widespread and in Hawaii 'kahunas' (native 'priests' would, in a fashion akin to that of tea-leaf reading, read the bubbles on the surface of a kava brew to predict the sex of an unborn child or the cause of illnesses.
Often the effects of colonisation and Western influence all but eradicated the use of traditional psychoactive substances. Whilst there were persistent attempts to stamp out kava use in many areas of the Pacific, its use continues unabated. In Vanuatu, independent since 1980, kava use has actually increased and is supported by the authorities as a desirable alternative to alcohol. This is at least in part an economic strategy as it has resulted in both a drastic decrease in the importation of alcoholic drinks and a development of kava as a highly significant cash crop. Kava bars have sprung up in the Pacific island providing a modern way to consume it in an informal and sociable setting. Whether or not kava makes significant headway in the world market remains to be seen. The recent interest of Westerners in natural products (witness the small but growing interest in the Amazonian guarana) may well facilitate its emergence as a popular alternative to other beverages. It is also sold through small outlets in the West as a 'legal high' but this market is likely to remain on a small scale.
Kava and the liver
Kava versus valerian
Kava as an anxiolytic
Kava: safety and risks
Kava for anxiety disorders
'Awa (Piper methysticum, kava)
International Online Pharmacies
and further reading
The Abolitionist Project
Critique Huxley's Brave New World
The Responsible Parent's Guide
The Good Drug Guide
To Healthy Mood Boosters For All The Family