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  • Potent Roots and the Origin of kava
  • John Lynch

Botanical evidence suggests that kava, Piper methysticum, may have first been domesticated in northern Vanuatu, and this implies that no Proto-Oceanic term can be reconstructed with this meaning. The dissimilarities between widespread terms for 'kava' like maloku in northern Vanuatu, yaqona in Fiji, and kava in Polynesia have complicated the issue, making it unclear what the earliest reconstruction might be. I show in this paper, however, that the term kava apparently derives from a Proto-Oceanic term *kawaRi, which referred to a root with special psychoactive and/or ritual properties: probably a species of ginger (Zingiber zerumbet), and possibly also to "wild" kava (Piper wichmannii) and to plants used in stupefying fish. This form apparently underwent a semantic and formal change, and was applied to kava when it was first domesticated. Later lexical changes in Vanuatu and Fiji are investigated, and a chronological sequence for the spread of kava—including spread from some Polynesian source to New Guinea—is proposed.

1. Botanical and other Background.1

The English term kava refers to the plant Piper methysticum and the mildly narcotic drink made from it. The plant is cultivated and the drinking of kava is institutionalized in Vanuatu, Fiji, Rotuma, much of Polynesia, Pohnpei, and in a few isolated areas in New Guinea (Brunton 1988, Crowley 1994:87). There is no evidence that kava was used in New Caledonia until the last twenty years or so, and only marginal evidence of its use in the Solomon Islands (see 2.3).

Kava is perhaps best known as a prepared drink that is used both in ceremonial contexts and in more egalitarian social situations. Fairly strict rituals and taboos relating to its preparation and consumption are widespread, with different modern Pacific societies showing greater or lesser degrees of secularity. It is not known, though, whether modern practices are the same as those obtaining in the past—that is, whether kava consumption was more or less ceremonial in each modern kava-drinking society than it is today. In addition to these well-known uses, however, kava is also employed pharmacologically in many Pacific societies, being used to cure a variety of medical conditions, and also in some areas as a contraceptive and an abortifacient (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992:112-117). [End Page 493]

1.1 Two Theories on the Origin of Kava.

Kava seems to have developed from Piper wichmannii (often referred to as "wild kava"), which is found in most of Melanesia, with the greatest diversity being in New Guinea. "The botanical evidence, despite its gaps, strongly suggests that Piper methysticum is a sterile plant [that] has been dispersed by a process involving human selection and propagation" (Brunton 1988:75): that is, it rarely self-propagates, requiring human agency to ensure growth. Although it is theoretically possible that P. methysticum may have occurred as a result of natural hybridization of P. wichmannii and some other Piper species, this probably would not have occurred independently on many occasions. In other words, kava seems to have been domesticated, and its presence and use in various parts of the Pacific is due to its having been transported by human agency. However, "the known distribution of kava drinking in the Pacific is puzzling. If the properties of Piper methysticum were independently discovered in a number of places there would be no problem. But the accumulated weight of botanical, linguistic and ethnological evidence indicates that this is extremely unlikely. There are very strong grounds for believing that kava drinking had a single source, and that its known distribution is a consequence of diffusion from this place of origin. Yet the distances [that] separate some of the kava-using regions are such that direct links between them before European contact seem out of the question. ... All the evidence suggests that kava drinking predated contact in the crucial regions of New Guinea" (Brunton 1988:168). In the modern Pacific, by far the greatest morphological diversity is in Vanuatu, where eighty different cultivar morphotypes are found. This compares with twelve in Fiji, eleven in Hawai'i, half a dozen in western Polynesia, four in Papua New Guinea, and two...


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