Nancy J Pollock. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Kava is both a plant and a drink made from that plant for ritual occasions. Kava usage is limited mostly to the Pacific basin, where it occurs widely from New Guinea in the west to the Marquesas in the east, and from Hawaii in the north to the southern Cook Islands. Some societies have ceased using it in recent times, whereas others ceased but began again after missionary prohibitions lessened and national independence brought kava to the fore as a mark of national identity (Brunton 1989).
A narcotic effect is commonly thought to be the main reason for kava’s consumption, but elaborate rituals have developed with kava as their centerpiece, together with complex rules about who can drink the substance and when. Powerful cultural elements that persisted into the 1990s led to the commercialization of the root; kava is now drunk by overseas island communities in Auckland, Sydney, Honolulu, and Los Angeles. Indeed it seems that kava has evolved as a major force in the maintenance of the identities of Pacific islanders at home and abroad.
“Kava” is the term for the whole plant, which according to Western botanical terminology, is Piper methysticum, placing it among the pepper families (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992). But “kava” may also refer to the beverage made from the roots or stem of the plant. Moreover, the term can mean a ritual in which the crushing of the root to make the beverage is a noteworthy activity.
Kava is a reconstructed Proto-Oceanic term within the large Austronesian language family (Biggs, Walsh, and Waqa 1972: 30). It, or a similar word, such as ‘ava, is still widely used throughout the eastern Pacific to refer to the same root. In Pohnpei in Micronesia, the word is sakau, a close cognate. In Fiji, kava is referred to as yaqona, a term that probably reflects its bitter taste, qona/kona. Throughout Vanuatu, which has some 170 vernacular languages and dialects, the terms for kava are quite varied (see Lebot and Cabalion 1988: 54-67 for a list). In northern Vanuatu, kava is known as maloku, meaning quiet, subdued (Crowley 1990), while nikawa, a close cognate, appears only in Tanna in southern Vanuatu. The local term for kava in Papua New Guinea is also quite varied (see Lebot and Cabalion 1988; Brunton 1989).
Origin and Spread
The origin of the kava plant and the relationships among the many different cultivars found today have both been subjects of detailed study by botanists (Lebot, Aradhya, and Manshardt 1991). Using material collected from throughout the Pacific, they have traced genetic links among the various samples, concentrating particularly on diversity in the Melanesian area.
Vincent Lebot and P. Cabalion (1988) have produced an inventory of the names of local cultivars around the Pacific. From chromosome counts they distinguish the genus Piper wichmannii from that of Piper methysticum. P. wichmannii, the wild form, has been located only in Melanesia, that is, in parts of New Guinea, the Solomon islands, and northern Vanuatu. In contrast, P. methysticum, the cultivated form, has been found throughout the high islands of Polynesia and on the high islands of Pohnpei and Kosrae in eastern Micronesia, and in Melanesia. P. wichmannii has been found to have higher isozyme variability than P. methysticum, but the two overlap for zymotype, leading the authors to suggest that there is no taxonomic distinction between the two plants.
Lebot and Cabalion, along with Vincent Lebot et al. (1991: 181), suggest that what was being selected for was the kavalactones, which have a physiological effect when the product is drunk. They indicate that P. methysticum was “domesticated through vegetative propagation from a narrow genetic base in wild fertile progenitor … becoming sterile through mutations affecting fertility… Because P. methysticum must be cultivated, this plant has resulted from human selection of somatic mutants… That selection process has resulted in variability in both morphological characteristics and the kavalactones” (Lebot et al. 1991: 181). The root of P. wichmannii, which according to Vanuatu oral tradition was made into a drink, was too powerful in its effect and induced nausea (Weightman 1989: 236).This may be a reason that P. methysticum was developed instead.
Identification of these two closely related species leads botanists and a historical linguist to suggest that northern Vanuatu is the center of origin of kava cultivars, which have been domesticated probably in the last 2,500 to 3,000 years. From Vanuatu, varieties of kava were introduced to Papua New Guinea, eastern Micronesia, and Polynesia. This mainly west-east spread was followed by an east-west spread, from Tonga and Samoa to East Futuna, from which some Futunan speakers sailed westward to settle an island off south Vanuatu that they named West Futuna. From there it spread to the other Polynesian outliers and the islands in southern Vanuatu (Crowley 1990). According to Lebot et al. (1991: 184): “Kava is a relatively late introduction into Polynesia, since there is no variation in isozymes in that region.” Further details of the genetic history of kava are given in Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom (1992).
The kava plant is a perennial shrub that reaches one or two meters in height. It has many stems and bears a light foliage of heart-shaped leaves. The stems are notable for being distinctly segmented by a dark band, similar to bamboo.
The plant is dioecious; that is, it bears male and female flowers on separate plants. To propagate kava, a stem bud is taken from a P. methysticum male plant, and from this a root system and shoots develop. Vegetative reproduction, thus, allows a high degree of selectivity in which plants are selected for propagation. The importance of the plant as a ritual drink has led to considerable human intervention in its evolution with resulting diversification.
Kava is cultivated along with other root crops, such as taro and yams, in household gardens and on shifting agriculture plantations. Preferred locations vary: In Futuna in the 1960s, the plants were cultivated high on the mountainside because large ants attacked them nearer the coast (Gaillot 1962); today, however, kava is cultivated in the plantation area behind the houses of coastal areas (Pollock 1995a).
To harvest the root in Vanuatu, the plant is dug out after three to four years of growth when the root-stock and mass of fibrous roots may weigh 5 to 10 kilos. In Futuna and Tonga, the root with its stem still attached but leaves removed may be offered as a tribute at an important occasion, such as the induction of a chief. For example, in Tonga for the induction ceremony of the crown prince, some 300 stems and roots of kava were cultivated and donated by the families living on lands belonging to the Tongan royal family. In Samoa the roots may be dried before they are presented at a kava ceremony; each honored guest is presented with his (or her) stem of kava, so that some stems may change hands several times before they are finally pounded to make a kava drink.
We surmise that many changes over time have affected the distribution of the plant, as well as the beverage and the ritual. Thus, in precontact times, all three are likely to have been different than those of today.
There is no reported evidence of the kava plant on New Caledonia, Easter Island, Belau, Yap, and parts of Papua New Guinea, nor on the atolls. In the case of the atolls, the soils are too poor and there is too much exposure to salt spray. In New Zealand it is likely that the climate has been too cold for the plant to grow.
Kava, as a drink, also shows no clear patterning. Records of its employment as a beverage come from those places that grew kava, which makes sense because the plant has to be vegetatively propagated and, consequently, was grown for a reason. But in places such as Tikopia, the plant continues to grow even though its usage has disappeared.
In those societies which do employ the plant ritually, a number of variations have developed over time and space. In some societies, these ritual occasions are still very formal, as in Futuna, Samoa, and Tonga, while in others a more secular consumption of kava has become popular, as in Pohnpei and Vanuatu. In Fiji, Tonga, Futuna, Pohnpei, and Vanuatu, both ritual and secular uses are practiced today.
According to missionary accounts, the nineteenth century saw the customary utilization of kava disappear in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Kosrae. This also happened in southern Vanuatu in the 1920s, but there kava drinking was revived after independence in 1979 (Brunton 1989). By contrast, on Wallis, widespread kava ceremonies declined after World War II and today are held only for very special occasions. Still another variation is found on the neighboring islands of Tikopia and Anuta, where in the 1930s kava was prepared as a drink. But the people did not drink it; rather, the ritual libation was poured to the gods (Firth 1970; Feinberg 1981).
Difference may also be found in the ways the root is prepared for drinking. In some societies it has been chewed (mainly by young women), while in others it is pounded or grated. Missionaries exerted a strong influence to discourage chewing kava because they considered it to be unhygienic and a way of spreading disease. In Vanuatu, young men have taken over the role of preparing the root, but in western Polynesia it still belongs to women, particularly on very important occasions.
Some societies process the root when it is green, whereas others prefer a beverage made from the dry root. In Fiji, at a highly formal welcoming ceremony, a whole fresh green plant is presented to the chief guest. If the fresh green plant is unobtainable, then an appropriate amount of dried, or even powdered, root is presented (Ravuvu 1987: 25).
The patchy nature of kava use has intrigued anthropologists, botanists, and others for a century or more. Edwin Burrows, for example, in his comparison of cultural features of western Polynesian societies (which he saw as distinct from Melanesian and other Polynesian societies), noted that “the western Polynesian kava complex appears as a local elaboration on a widespread Oceanic base. The occurrence of the whole complex in parts of Fiji is probably due to diffusion from western Polynesia… Distinct resemblances to western Polynesian kava customs elsewhere in Melanesia and Micronesia are also probably due to diffusion from western Polynesia” (Burrows 1939: 114-15). In western Polynesia he included Samoa,Tonga, ‘Uvea/Wallis, and Futuna along with Fiji.
W. H. Rivers (1914) had earlier attempted to account for this scattered distribution by distinguishing “kava people” from “betel people,” suggesting that exploitation of the two forms of the Piper plant were mutually exclusive. Betel is a combination of two plant substances, the Areca catechu nut and the Piper betle leaf, in which the nut is wrapped so that it can be chewed. The leaf contains the narcotic substances.
Ron Brunton (1989), in his society-by-society reexamination of Rivers’ thesis, however, indicates that the distribution is not quite so mutually exclusive. His review of the linguistic and archeological evidence suggests to him that the Bismarck Archipelago is the “homeland” of kava, where it was part of an early social complex known as Lapita culture. From there it was traded along a coastal route to southern New Guinea and, later, to Fiji and Polynesia. He hypothesizes that kava moved with the eastward spread of Lapita culture some 3,000 years ago (Brunton 1989: 82). Such a spread was not unidirectional, and kava usage later diffused back westward from Samoa and Tonga. It, thus, reached southern Vanuatu, and Tanna in particular, he argues, several hundred years after it had become a part of the culture of northern Vanuatu. The most likely agents of transmission were the Polynesians of Aniwa and West Futuna, two islands just off the coast of southern Vanuatu (inhabited by Polynesian speakers), who brought kava customs developed in eastern Oceania back to Melanesia (Brunton 1989: 83).
Brunton also considers it likely that kava was once drunk by many peoples in Melanesia who subsequently abandoned it for unknown reasons. Similarly, he argues that betel, too, may have dropped out of use in some societies that may have subsequently exploited kava. Thus, he considers the belief that kava and betel are mutually exclusive to be largely mistaken. Both have been in and out of use over time in various parts of the Pacific (Brunton 1989: 85).
It can be concluded, therefore, that not every island society has employed kava, that the plant does not occur everywhere, and that the ways in which it was employed also differ from place to place. Such fluctuations in occurrence of the plant and the customs associated with it are likely to have marked its long history. This may be because a particular society chose to drop such customs, or was forced to do so after cyclone damage rendered the plant unavailable, as happened in Futuna in 1986 (Pollock field notes 1987). Yet at a later time, the plant could have been reintroduced from a neighboring island along with new ways of employing it. Consequently, today we can see a range of kava usage from very ritual occasions to more secular ones, which may reflect differences in its social importance.
Kava rituals have become differentiated in both practice and ideology as societies have dispersed over time and developed their own distinctive cultural characteristics. The rituals took two broad forms: those in which the kava was prepared and drunk, usually in a kava circle, and those in which the whole root was presented to an honored person. But in either case, the root symbolizes the ties between ancestors and present-day peoples, represented by their chiefs and nobles; it, thus, symbolizes both past and present.
The most formal rituals at which kava is drunk begin with the appropriate people seated in an inner circle, with the community assembled around its outer edge. The processing of root to make the beverage is under the direction of the chief officiator for kava ceremonies. The ritual ends when the chief dignitary signals that the circle should break up – often when he himself has moved out of the circle.
Kava rituals take place outdoors as well as in specially designated houses. In Futuna, a house known as tauasu is specially set aside for men’s nightly kava sessions. For large formal kava ceremonies, at which many communities are present, an outdoor venue is obviously necessary. In Vanuatu, the kava-drinking grounds are outdoor sites, usually under banyan trees.
The processing of kava, which transforms the whole root into a mass of fibers and pulp, is also highly ritualized. It consists of three steps: pulverizing the root, adding water to the pulp, and serving the liquid. The main person making kava in western Polynesia is usually a young woman, who is aided by several young men.
Processing begins once everyone is seated and the necessary pieces of equipment are in place, including the wooden kava bowl, whole roots, water, the fiber strainer, and serving cups. The kava root, whether green or dried, is cut into small pieces and chewed, pounded, or grated, according to local custom. In the past, chewing the root was the most widespread practice; this task was assigned to several young girls or young men, chosen for their perfect teeth. They washed out their mouths before commencing to chew until all the pulp was macerated, leaving a fibrous ball that each girl took from her mouth and placed in the kava bowl.
The mode of reducing the kava root to pulp has changed over time. As already mentioned missionaries discouraged chewing the root on the grounds that the practice spread disease. Alternative methods call for pounding the root, grinding it between two stones, or grating it. Upon the command of the chief of the kava ceremonies, water is added to the balls of pulp and fiber in the wooden kava bowl. The chief calls out the order as to when the kava should be mixed, how much water is to be added, and when the mixture should be strained. Adding the water is the most significant part of this ceremonial preparation. According to Futunans, it transforms one substance, the root, into another, the beverage. The root, thus, becomes the medium for communication with the gods, a means of both honoring and supplicating them.
The third stage begins once the mixture is ready to be served. Cups are carried to individual participants in the kava circle by young men designated for the task. The chief officiator calls the name of the person to be served. In Samoa these names are exclusively for use in the kava ceremony (known as kava cup names) and are not used in other situations (Williamson 1939).
Upon receipt of the cup, the recipient claps and pours out a small libation to the gods before drinking the remaining liquid in one gulp. In Samoa the first cup, designated for a particular god, used to be poured out by the chief officiator before others were served. The Tikopian practice of pouring out the carefully prepared liquid (Firth 1970) was thus in line with the general ritual procedures, but represented an alternative kind of development in that no living person drank the kava.
Clearly, such rites performed in front of the assembled community are very formalized. All movements and gestures have become stylized, especially in western Polynesia, where those eligible to perform the tasks undergo elaborate training.
Kava Drinking Circle
The seating order at each ceremonial event in western Polynesian societies is established by the kava officiator, who uses his knowledge of the relative status of the participants. The individual with the highest status sits in the center of the arc, with others seated to his left and right according to their relative status. In western Polynesian systems, a matapule, or talking chief, sits next to his chief. The circle may consist of between 15 and 40 persons.
The serving of the kava cups according to the order called by the chief officiator, thus, serves to reiterate the community hierarchy in a very visual and visible manner. The status of particular titles relative to one another and the incumbents holding those titles are displayed for community knowledge and affirmation.
Degrees of Formality
The most formal kava circles occur for the investiture of a new supreme chief. Such a ceremony was performed in Tonga in 1976 for the investiture of the crown prince of Tonga, an event that coincided with the Tonga Constitutional Centenary celebrations.
In Futuna and the neighboring island of Rotuma, a number of lesser rituals involving the kava plant were practiced, and some still are. A morning cup of kava was drunk together by chiefs of friendly hamlets to propitiate the spirits for the right outcome of the day’s events (Rozier 1963). On ‘Uvea/Wallis, by contrast, the range of kava occasions has been reduced to the very formal one for the installation of a new Lavelua (chief) and to some others associated with the Catholic Church’s annual first communion celebration.
Although their island is nominally part of western Polynesia, Niueans have had a cultural ideology that differs from that of their neighbors. Edwin Loeb (1926) reported that only the priest was allowed to drink a potion to the gods, doubtless because the island’s poor soils make it difficult to grow kava. Hence, its use was limited to priests.
Pohnpei, though in Micronesia, has shared much of the formality of western Polynesian societies, where kava (known as sakau) was used to support an elaborate chiefly system. Today, major events that draw the districts together are still marked by a kava ceremony, but much is also drunk informally (Peterson 1995).
In Vanuatu, only the island of Tanna has maintained the ritual use of kava. There, the emphasis is less on the hierarchy of the circle; the focal part of the ritual is when each man spits out the last mouthful of his cup by way of sending messages to the ancestors (Brunton 1989; Lindstrom 1987).
In other parts of Vanuatu, kava is drunk but with considerably less ceremony. The heaviest users have been the healers or controllers of magic, who are said to use the drink to improve their communication with the gods (Young 1995).
In those parts of Polynesia where kava rituals are no longer practiced, we can still glean a notion of their formality from the written accounts by Europeans. In Tahiti, kava was used only by chiefs, but not as part of any religious ritual (Oliver 1987). Similarly, the chiefs in the Marquesas were reported to follow the steps in ritual processing, but no elaborate ceremonials were practiced (Dening 1980). In the Cook Islands, reports indicate only that a bowl of kava was made at an installation ceremony (Gill 1876), but we have no further detail.
In Hawaii, the practice of drinking ‘awa died out in the mid-nineteenth century. It was drunk mainly by the ali’i or chiefs, though it was not forbidden to commoners. As E. S. C. Handy summarized the practices: “Awa’s ceremonial uses were simply the expression of the belief that gods like the same good things of life that men did” (1972: 191).
In earlier times, kava usage was also highly ritualized on Tikopia, a small island north of Vanuatu with a Polynesian culture, though geographically among Melanesian peoples. But it differed markedly from western Polynesian practices in one small but important detail. As Raymond Firth (1970: 203) noted, “it was poured out, not drunk.” Otherwise its preparation and presentation followed the practices of other Polynesian societies. According to Firth: “the whole ideology of kava concentrated upon its religious significance in ritual. There were no social kava-drinking ceremonies, nor any consumption of kava as a beverage apart from [a very few] casual instances. In such a religious context the material properties of the kava were of less importance than its signalization function” (1970: 204).
Thus, ritual uses of kava across the Pacific vary considerably. Kava drinking almost everywhere has been predominantly the prerogative of chiefs and priests. Where other men are allowed to participate, it linked the more highly ranked senior men with the more lowly ranked. The main function of kava in these rituals is to communicate with the ancestral spirits, thus imbuing kava with an important mediating role. The whole ritual has a social rather than an individual character; it is a group experience.
Exchanges of the Root
Presentations of the kava root to a chief or an honored guest were ritually made to ask for a favor, or to atone for a wrong, or to ask a priest to propitiate the gods for a special service, such as stopping destructive winds (Rozier 1963). Moreover, at ceremonial functions where it was not appropriate to make a kava drink, whole roots might be presented to a visiting dignitary. Such a procedure still occurs in New Zealand within the Samoan community; a visiting dignitary from Samoa or elsewhere is presented with a root as a token of respect.
In Tanna, Vanuatu, kava was at the center of a network of exchanges that linked villages through “paths” or “roads” that connected the various kava-drinking grounds. Social relationships were developed and maintained along these roads, over which knowledge, information, and goodwill also passed (Brunton 1989; Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992).
The kava root is also given in exchange for medicine or as a gift between friends. Such exchanges are noteworthy because they demonstrate that the root itself can be more important than the narcotic properties it bears when made into a drink. In other words, it is not necessary for the root to be processed for it to have honorific meaning (Brunton 1989; Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992).
Kava has also been employed informally in Fiji, Futuna, Pohnpei, Tonga, and parts of Vanuatu where ritual preparations were minimized and there were fewer restrictions as to who could drink. Kava was drunk communally at designated meeting places, and kava sessions, lasting all night, were held several times a week. These sessions, although less ritually structured, nevertheless emphasized the symbolic nature of kava drinking and communication with the ancestors.
In Futuna, each village had (and has) its tauasu house for the men. In Tonga, the men may meet in the house of a prominent person. In Vanuatu, kava-drinking grounds were the nightly meeting places in villages, whereas kava clubs are the meeting place in towns. At these nightly sessions in Tonga or Futuna, the root is chewed or crushed by a young man or young woman, who is seated at the kava bowl in order to maintain the supply of the beverage by replenishing the cups of the drinkers and crushing more of the root as needed. The drinkers, all male, sit on mats in an oval around the edge of the house with the kava maker at one end. Such sessions can last until three or four in the morning, but some men quietly drift away as they become sleepy. There is a light buzz of conversation, and the occasional clap as a drinker receives his new cup (Pollock field notes, Tonga 1976).
Such occasions are mainly social, with conversation ranging around political issues and local affairs. In Tonga, Futuna, and Fiji, these sessions enable men to relax in the company of other men of the village and share information. Indeed, a young man is expected to attend if he wants to be viewed as interested in village affairs, and thus a candidate for a leadership position (Sepeliano 1974).
By the 1980s, kava drinking in Vanuatu was also a nightly occasion, though customs varied throughout the islands. The village gathering place, often under a banyan tree, gave way to a kava bar where women and young men also drink. The kava is drunk in one gulp, after which one is expected to spit loudly. Such bars have become very lucrative for their owners.
In Vanuatu certain varieties of the plant have been designated for everyday use, whereas other varieties are drunk only by persons of high rank, and still others are used as traditional medicine. Depending on the varieties available, together with the way they are prepared, kava can precipitate drunkenness, but a bleary-eyed, staggering, and comatose sort, “never hilarious or pugnacious” (Gunn quoted in Weightman 1989: 239). In fact, with the custom of modern kava drinking in Vanuatu, there has arisen a whole range of slang phrases, such as fowil antap, “four wheel on top,” to describe just one form of drunkenness.
Kava has been labeled a narcotic containing certain pharmacologically active substances long recognized by Western chemists, pharmacists, and others. Certainly missionaries and other outsiders judged drug properties to be the reason for kava usage and took steps to ban its cultivation, processing, and use as a beverage. The main objection seems not to have been to drunkenness but to the soporific effects it produced, which prevented many men from doing a full day’s work after a night of drinking kava. Recent ethnographic accounts from Vanuatu have stressed the druglike or narcotic properties of kava (Lindstrom 1987; Lebot and Cabalion 1988; Brunton 1989).
The main chemically active constituents identified by chemists are kawain and the kava lactones. However, despite many years of investigations, mainly in German laboratories (see Lebot and Cabalion 1988) but also in Sydney (Duffield and Jamieson 1991), the precise physiological action of these substances on the human neurological and chemical system is not fully understood.
Kawain is said to be an emotional and muscular relaxant that stabilizes the feelings and stimulates the ability to think and act. It has bactericidal properties and can be used as an antimycotic. It is also a diuretic. Fresh kava has a local anesthetic effect on the chewer’s mouth. But its main effect is as a muscle relaxant (Lebot and Cabalion 1988: 35).
The chemical properties of kava and other local plants have long been of interest to visitors to the Pacific. Gilbert Cuzent, a naval pharmacist based in Tahiti from 1858 to 1860, claimed to be the first to identify (in 1858) a substance he called “Kavahine” as a result of experiments carried out on various parts of the kava plant. This claim led to a scientific argument with another French pharmacist, who had also published his analysis of the kava root in April 1857 in the newspaper Le Messager de Tahiti and, in 1858, in the Revue Coloniale. However, the French Academy of Sciences recognized Cuzent’s claim (Cuzent 1860: 189-90).
The major physiological effects are quiescent and numbing, in contrast to the enervating effects of alcohol. The kava drinker may feel a slight numbness around the mouth, but the strongest effect is on the legs; anyone who sits drinking kava for a long period of time finds it hard to stand or walk. There is no loss of consciousness, though the kava drinker may fall asleep after seven or eight cups and be hard to awaken. Some Vanuatu cultivars are more potent than others and so are more favored by drinkers for the quick effect they produce (Crowley 1990).
Kava is also said to lead to loss of appetite and to reduced libido, but such effects are reversible if the person stops drinking it for several weeks (Spencer 1941). Redness around the eyes is also a mark of a heavy drinker, as is a scaly skin.
In his studies of the plant’s usage in the eastern Pacific, Edwin Lemert (1967) noted how kava produced a nonaggressive, anaphrodisiac, mildly tranquil and dreamy state. He suggested that it depressed bodily functions such as heart and respiration rates and temperature. He labeled kava drinking “a form of retreatist or avoidance behavior, related to onerous claims which Polynesian social organization periodically makes on individuals” (Lemert 1967: 337). Many authors have noted that the quiescent and soothing effects of kava place it in direct contrast to alcohol. For this reason, kava has been introduced as a counter to heavy alcohol drinking, whether in Vanuatu or among Australian Aborigines (D’Abbs 1995).
It is true that modern writers tend to think that those who drink enough kava become drunk, yet a number of other writers over the past century and a half have either not mentioned any drunkenness, or have said that kava does not lead to such a state and that drinkers only become sleepy and quiescent.
Kava and Alcohol
The relationship between kava and alcohol is one of contrast rather than one of similarity. As W. T. Wawn wrote in 1870: “Kava has a very different effect from alcohol. It is soothing, and a pint of strong kava, or even half that quantity for a beginner, will apparently have no more effect than to make a man desirous of being left alone and allowed to sit quietly and smoke his pipe… Alcohol excites, kava soothes and then stupefies” (quoted in Weightman 1989: 237-8). Other authors have made similar observations. Thus, alcohol and kava satisfy different needs (Lemert 1967: 337).
One major difference between the two substances is that kava is a very social drink (it is almost unheard of for someone to pound a batch of kava for personal drinking), drunk in association with others in ritual settings or in the modern-day kava clubs, where a group of people share a bucketful (or one “brew”) of kava.
Nonetheless, as a result of institutionalized drug-classification principles in the West, kava and alcohol have been placed alongside one another. Kava has been a banned substance in the United States since 1958, though there has been a campaign to lift that ban (Lebot and Cabalion 1988: 91). It is also considered a harmful substance in New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji.
Kava has been a cash crop for more than 100 years. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, several South Pacific countries have been exporting the dried root to Germany and France for pharmaceutical uses. In the 1880s, a trading house in Wallis sent 30,000 pounds in 18 months at a price of 30 to 35 cents a pound to meet a growing demand in Europe, where it was employed both as a diuretic and for its calming effects (Deschamps 1883).
Today, markets for kava in Germany and France still exist, and processing laboratories import the equivalent of some 200 tons of fresh root from Fiji and Tonga. A study of such demand showed a recognition of the therapeutic properties in kava for antiseptics, expectorants, diuretics, and urogenital stimulants. One product with the brand name Kaviase had been on the market for about 20 years, and in Germany an attempt was made to launch a kava-based soft drink (Weightman 1989: 241).
Certainly, kava has become an important alternative cash crop for several Pacific island societies, and for farmers in parts of Fiji and Vanuatu, it is now their most important cash earner. The crop is widely sold by the bundle of dried roots in the markets throughout Fiji. Purchasers are mainly urban Fijians who have no access to yaqona from their own lands. Similarly, in Vanuatu, kava already yields a higher net income per hectare to the farmer than cocoa and coffee (Lebot and Cabalion 1988: 92). It thus provides a form of economic buffer against downturns in tourism due to oil prices and political instability.
The evolution of kava usage over millennia has been marked by a waxing and waning of its popularity, as well as by changes in the plant and its mode of processing. During this time it has been eliminated from some islands by cyclones, salt water inundations, and even warfare when the plants were pulled out by the retreating forces (Gill 1876).
Yet vegetative reproductive properties have enabled varieties to be selected that could be processed into an ever more pleasant beverage, and the range of cultivars has increased markedly in island societies, such as those of Vanuatu where it is of great cultural importance.
The geographical range of kava, however, is more narrow today than it was a hundred years ago. Missionaries sought to eliminate it because it reduced productive work efforts, and other Westerners have included it under the negative rubric of a drug, although there is no medical evidence for long-term harmful effects.
The employment of kava in recent times has been marked by a considerable increase in its secular, as opposed to its ritual, use. In Fiji, Futuna, Pohnpei, Tonga, and Samoa, the Catholic, Methodist, and Congregational churches have taken a less rigid stance against kava drinking, so the rituals have continued and broadened in scope to include welcoming ceremonies for Western visitors and such church activities as first communion. The kava parties now are open to men of all ages and status in the community, although women do not often participate.
Yet the overall development of kava throughout the Pacific during some 3,000 years has been one of ritual usage. Those societies that have maintained kava drinking to present times have done so because it is an important medium in their cultural system. It is steeped in a strong body of local ideology that places the root as central to a communication process, linking the ancestral spirits to the incumbent chiefs and priests, and, thus, the whole living community to those associated with its past.