The History of Kava
A Drink Enjoyed for Centuries
Unraveling the history of kava origins is a bit like solving a mystery. Nobody knows for sure the origins of the kava plant but today, most believe kava originates from Vanuatu. More specifically, some theorize that kava originated in Northern Vanuatu on the island of Maewo. Supporting this theory is the fact that Vanuatu hosts the most kava varieties of any nation.
Dr Vincent Lebot, a leading researcher and expert in kava, and author of the book ‘Kava: The Pacific Elixir,’ along with researchers from the University of Hawaii, have made large contributions to our knowledge of the history of kava. What is known for sure is kava has been cherished by Pacific Islanders for many centuries due to the amazing and unique properties of the plant.
A historical reference dating back as far as 1616 suggests Dutch navigators called Le Maire and Schouten observed kava on the island of Futuna. The voyages of Captain James Cook to the South Pacific most certainly included the discovery of kava. A botanical drawing of kava in the Natural History Museum in London, England dates to 1769. Then, towards the end of the century, George Forster, a naturalist, journalist, and revolutionary, who accompanied his father, also a renowned naturalist, on many scientific adventures, including the second Pacific voyage of Captain James Cook, provides an in-depth description of kava: “the kava juice is extracted from the roots of a kind of pepper-tree. The roots are first made into pieces and then are chewed by people who later spew out the pulp into a bowl containing coconut or cold water. After this, the mix is filtered through the coconut fibers and then emptied into a separate bowl for consumption.”
“The kava juice is extracted from the roots of a kind of pepper-tree. The roots are first made into pieces and then are chewed by people who later spew out the pulp into a bowl containing coconut or cold water. After this, the mix is filtered through the coconut fibers and then emptied into a separate bowl for consumption.”
George Foster, 1777
The extensive existence of kava plants throughout the South Pacific islands is due solely to the men who set out to explore the ocean around them centuries ago. Kava was so highly valued that it was one of the few plants or necessities that early oceanic explorers chose to take with them on their canoes in search of other islands. Perhaps they chose to carry kava in the event they would encounter a more peaceful welcome from natives of other lands by introducing and sharing the kava beverage with them.
Today, researchers turn to the distribution of kava throughout the Pacific islands as a means of understanding the population migrations that took place centuries ago. The existence of kava plants on islands where the plant is not indigenous can help explain the movement of people in this region.
As kava was spread and propagated locally, new kava varieties emerged on each island. Today, there are known to be over 100 kava cultivars. Most importantly, kava drinking became part of the cultural heritage and ceremonial traditions on each island. And, not surprisingly, it also found its way into historical legends and lore. Ancient stories passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, still today.
The most prevalent kava origin legend is from Tonga. The centuries-old legend states that a couple was living alone with their only daughter, called Kava, on one of the Tongan islands. Then, one day, the sacred King of Tonga (Tu’i Tonga) along with some of his men, searching for food and a place to rest, landed on the island. There was no food to feed the king, so instead, the couple killed and made a sacrifice of their daughter to show the king respect and to honor him, and make peace.
Later the couple was shocked to find that two plants had grown up on their daughter Kava’s grave. Then one day they noticed two rats eating the plants and saw that one became intoxicated. That plant was named kava after their daughter who had been sacrificed. The other plant is said to have been sugar cane. From that moment on, all those centuries ago, kava with its intoxicating properties became an important ceremonial drink. It has been offered to the kings of Tonga ever since. This video tells the story.
Many legends tell of the discovery and history of kava in Hawaii and how it came to be called ‘awa. One attributes the discovery of kava to a Hawaiian Chief and adventurous, sea explorer, Hawaii – Loa. Another, told in a famous chant, links the discovery of ‘awa to Hawaiian Gods. And another even postulates that birds brought ‘awa to the islands of Hawaii.
However it came to the Hawaiian islands, awa became a sacred drink, an offering to the Gods, a drink of the Chiefs and those of high rank, a drink used by medicine men, (kahunas), as well as, when obtainable, the drink of fishermen and farmers. One historical reference describes how “Awa is good for the farmer when he is weary and sore after laboring day and night, and for the fisherman who has been diving, rowing, pulling and bending with his head down, or until his thighs and buttocks are sore from sitting on the edge of the canoe.”
It is easy to see how kava drinking is so central to the culture of the Pacific islands, binding current-day islanders to their ancestors.
From Hawaii, kava made its way to the continental United States, where during the early part of the 20th century it became part of capsules and concoctions sold in early pharmacies. An advertisement for Kava Kava can even be found in a Sears catalog from 1915.
Kava drinking has grown substantially in popularity since then, as evidenced by the number of kava bars in the U.S.
Reading about the history, folklore, and traditions associated with kava is fascinating. As you buy and drink kava today, know that you are becoming part of the long, and ongoing tradition of kava drink history. Long may these traditions last and let us make sure we preserve and respect that culture.
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Now that you’ve graduated from Kalm University, why not try some for yourself?