Written by Bill Chioffi
Origin Myths from various cultures and religions are fascinating examples of oral tradition. They inform the listener or reader on the finer elements of the social charters expressive of each entity and plant described. We must be careful to respect the sanctity of these myths as they are more than just stories in many traditions. For example, in the South Pacific Islands oral tradition and gathering around a fire in a communal hut still occurs nightly in some places. They still tell stories and share myths to entertain themselves and pass the time. They also share a mildly inebriating and sociability inducing beverage from the roots of a Pepper family plant; Piper methysticum G. Forst, or Kava.
On one of my trips to the archipelago of Vanuatu I had the great fortune to hear an origin story about Kava (Piper methysticum G. Forst) in a Nakamal (a native hut) under these conditions. Kava beverages made from freshly ground roots mixed with water produce a mouth numbing, bitter, and certainly psychoactive effect. It is consumed communally and prepared the same way in villages and in commercial Nakamals. The enhanced sociability and inhibition of social tension that Kava gives is embraced by villagers and chiefs in remediating disputes. I was investigating the supply chain for a dietary supplement company in the US under their employ. This is one of hundreds of stories shared by South Pacific Islanders of how the Kava plant first appeared from the earth and presented itself to humans to help ease their worried minds and bodies.
There are two main types of Kava Origin Myths. One centers around Kava growing out of a buried human corpse and subsequently a “Drunken Rat” or “Drunken Pig” is observed chewing on the roots of a pepper plant and then appearing completely inebriated. Thus the observer learns how to prepare the plant. The second main type of story uses the archetype of Kava as a gift from the God’s delivered by descending from the sky or sailing across a long ocean voyage to give the islanders the original gift of Kava (3). The story I was told is from the Island of Maewo but certain main elements have changed as is also typical with oral tradition and the passing of tales. Core elements remain consistent in the tales, such as the buried corpse of a woman, users anxiety relief after taking the plant as well as a promise to cultivate the plant and tell of its benefits. It was told to me by Julia and Frank King from Mélé Village on the island of Efate in Vanuatu and they share a version of this story with visitors at The Kava House in Mélé Village.
Frank’s father started one of the first tourism companies in Vanuatu and then moved into the Kava trade. We had met via phone in the late 1990’s. Frank Jr and his wife Julia now run the business. They are kind and generous hosts and we have become good friends over the years. They sponsor and coach youth football (soccer) programs through the Kava House, and The House of Refuge, a Pentecostal Church of which Frank is the Minister. They also provide many jobs for the Mele villagers, in addition to raising a beautiful family. The Kava plant generated my relationship with Frank and the plant has enabled him to support an entire community. Julia instituted The Kava Discovery Tour onsite at their headquarters to integrate educational experiences centered on the traditional preparations and cultural significance to the islands they import their Kava from. They share these stories and their practical experience.
Few people realize the arduous and complicated task required just for intra island transport of Kava, let alone challenges with meeting phytopharmaceutical specifications for raw material export. Their market relies profoundly on local interisland shipping that brings in the fresh “green” produce of Kava. With limited infrastructure in Port Vila and almost complete lack of it in the islands, atop fluctuating weather patterns, getting the kava to the main center alone is a challenge in itself. The scarcity of roads, lack of vehicles and other services on the islands means most of the produce is carried on bare human backs across ridges, over mountains, on long roads just to get to the main access points where the produce finally gets on the vessel. The produce is then transferred to their Bio-security approved facilities where it is processed, packaged and ready to be exported. It is encouraging to know that the oral tradition and cultural history of this plant are being cared for and promoted by The Kava House as fervently their promotion of commercial sales.
Kava origin story
(As told to the author by Frank and Julia King-Ni-Vanuatu; Mélé Village, Efate Island, Vanuatu-July 2017)
Our story begins with two brothers Ben a farmer and Cassie a fisherman. Each day Ben would rise early and work his crops in the forest, while his brother would fish when the tides allowed, and he would come and go with the water and bait and was often around the village during the day due to bad fishing or weather. One day Ben came home to find Cassie in bed with his wife and in a fit of rage killed his wife and his brother. He buried them in the earth behind his hut and went into a long state of depression so dark that he could not expose himself to the light nor could he sleep.
He had a dream that came during one of his long nights of restless sleep that a plant with heart shaped leaves spoke to him, and told him to get up and look for it in the forest behind his house where he buried his wife. The next morning Ben got up and went looking for the plant and sure enough there it was sprouting branches that looked like the brown knuckles of his wife’s hands coming from the ground with green heart shaped veined leaves. It was the first time Ben had come out of his hut since the event and he began to have more dreams about the plant and seemed to sleep better and be more at ease just being around it.
The next night he dreamt that the plant told him that it was the spirit of his slain wife and that she forgave him for his rage and could help him with his heavy guilt, shame and lift the darkness that he was living with. The plant told of how Ben should carve a board out of black wood to resemble her womb, and then of the plant with the heart shaped leaves, “pull up my feet and legs (roots) and grind them into the womb you will make out of dark wood and with a long, rounded piece of dead coral and some fresh rainwater until it forms a milky liquid that you should squeeze through coconut fibers and drink the liquid. While you are drinking you will not think of me or think about sex and your wife, your sore muscles will be warmed by the drink and the pain will ease and I promise to keep you peaceful if you only remember to cut up my arms and hands at each joint and stick them into the earth to grow more and tell other men in the village how I make you feel and how to prepare me and how to grow more of me.”
And so, Ben did this…
He began to sleep well and went back to farming and told the men in the village about his dreams. They tried the drink together at night in the village hut and found that not only did it help them sleep, but it eased their sore muscles from working the forest gardens and waters all day. From then on Kava has been consumed and loved within the communities. That is the story of how Kava came to this Island and spread to the other islands.
A plant and its people
The Medicinal plant Piper methysticum G. Forst is commonly referred to as Kava, ‘Awa, or Yaqona in Vanuatu, Hawaii, Fiji respectively. Kava relies on asexual propagation since it cannot produce a viable seed. After I heard and read about the various Kava origin stories, I wondered if the buried corpse of a woman was representative of the indigenous tribe’s explanation for how a plant could reproduce without a seed and why it made them feel at ease in body and mind. The answer as with most things in the botanical world is not so simple and requires more research. It is a conversation better had in person for the ethnobotanical inquiry, preferably while in the Nakamal after a shell or two of Kava and certainly not via WhatsApp or Zoom.
The phytochemical research also continues, and volumes are dedicated to characterization and isolation still without complete agreement amongst analytical chemists. The plant that is thought to be the “Mother” of Piper methysticum G. Forst; Piper methysticum var. wichmannii is also an asexual or vegetative reproducer though it is physically much larger than the drinking varieties, grows more rapidly and is substituted intentionally and unintentionally for Noble or commonly consumed Varieties. This plant is considered a spiritual and ceremonial plant in Vanuatu and typically has not been consumed for nakamal drinking but only used in ceremonies. On my last visit in 2017 I heard from several Ni Vanuatu that they were drinking “wild kava” P. methysticum var. wichmannii (‘wael kava’ in Bislama language). That they would drink from a plant normally reserved for spiritual and ceremonial practice is indicative of the strain on this plant in trade.
During my times visiting the islands with Frank and Julia King they began facilitating the transplanting of some Noble varieties on Efate from Pentecost and other island’s. This was because of various tropical storms, volcanic eruptions and cyclones damaging Kava crops specific to those islands (Efate, Pentecost and Ambrym in this case). This left the islanders unable to work the crop with many other life preserving activities taking precedent, such as replanting food gardens, clearing debris and building water storage. The fresh kava trade between islands for drinking has extended into selling young shoots for cultivation.
For much of the known history of Kava dating back to the works recorded by early Botanist J.G. Forester who travelled on Captain Cook’s expeditions around the pacific Islands in 1777 each Island cultivated, harvested and traded varieties that were endemic to that Island with varieties such as Borogu and Borogu Temit predominant on Pentecost and varieties such as Pia being more predominant on Tanna. There are 16 known folk cultivars of Kava that have been identified on Pentecost and about the same on Tanna but the reader must also consider the linguistic diversity of Vanuatu and the fact that there are over 20 different Islands that have cultivated Kava for centuries in a concentrated geographic area. There are 105 languages spoken in the archipelago of Vanuatu (the most of any Country by population) and cultivars are recorded in as many languages. The gathering and recording of this information have been long and laborious and a debt of gratitude is due to Dr. Vincent Lebot for his work (1,3).
As efforts to increase diversity and inclusion increase, they extend to the plants in addition to the people. Of interesting note here; the trip in 2017 was the first time I had seen Women in Nakamals and drinking Kava in public. Custom or “Kastom” a Bislama/Pigin word for culture, including religion, economics, art and magic, has not allowed native Vanuatu women to harvest, process or drink Kava with the exception of masticating rootstock on some occasions for ceremony. Despite this strict adherence to Custom in conversations with locals on different islands, it is clear that some women do drink Kava regularly, they are just doing so in hiding. Now, attitudes are changing and the women I spoke with said for the better.
The experience of Kava from clinic to couch
The Kava Origin story above is just one of many stories on the origin of Kava and I encourage the reader to find more information freely available online concerning this subject, or better yet, travel to any Kava bearing island in the South Pacific and ask for yourself. They will be happy to share their information with you and it’s a great thing to chat about after a shell or two. Kava grows in some of the most beautiful tropical paradise locations known, Fiji, New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, The Cook and Solomon Islands and Vanuatu among the jewels in this pacific treasure chest. This plant perhaps more than any other I’ve encountered represents the human, plant coevolutionary process in the most sublime of ways. It is a plant that prepared properly, from the correct species, relieves anxiety and opens certain areas of perception and the plant must be reproduced by humans.
It grows naturally where rainfall is plentiful (average 2,000 mm/yr). Ideal growing conditions are 21–35 °C and 70–100% relative humidity. Too much sunlight is harmful, especially in early growth. The beverage is prepared in commercial nakamals and villages using a mechanical grinder, most often a manual hand crank meat grinder. The ground roots are then put into a mesh cloth, though one time in Mele village I helped prepare some of that night’s Kava and we used a pair of men’s mesh football shorts as a strainer (they were clean!), proving that necessity is the mother of invention. In the USA Kava is regulated as a dietary supplement and dried lateral root stock in a powdered form and various extracts are available. I do take an extract of Kava from time to time and there’s a slight feeling of warmth, an ease in tension without cognitive inhibition, this is more pronounced in the water extracted dried root preparations than from capsules or extracts. To emphasize the difference for this subject; when drinking fresh kava on Vanuatu, I have thought to be able to see the vacuoles opening and closing on the underside of plant leaves, breathing in CO2 and out oxygen molecules, so relaxed and calm amongst natives yet over 8,000 miles from my home on a dot of land in the South Pacific.
The experience of drinking fresh kava on the islands is not easily reproduced through even the best of Dried Kava preparations or extracts. The word Kava is thought to be from Tongan language meaning ‘bitter’ and in Hawaii it is ‘ava’, also meaning bitter as it is so indicated in almost all the languages that refer to this beverage (2). It’s not a flavor that one savors. Spit troughs are common at the Nakamals in Vanuatu and there’s always some coconut meat, paw-paw (Papaya), or pineapple to cleanse the bitterness from the palate after knocking back a shell of fresh Kava. It is also a type of “prayer offering” to spit and cough after consuming and ask the kava spirits for good fortune. I am grateful to have access to Kava as we do in the US and feel for my fellow herbal enthusiasts in the UK that cannot so freely enjoy this plant.
Kava safety and toxicology
In 2001 concerns about Kava’s safety were raised by European media reports of liver toxicity involving the use of Kava. Then in 2002 the Office of Dietary Supplements issued this statement: “On March 25, 2002, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory notifying consumers that kava-containing dietary supplements may be associated with severe liver injury. The FDA reported that kava-containing products have been associated with liver-related injuries, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure, in over 25 reports of adverse events in other countries. In the U.S., FDA received a report of a previously healthy young female who required liver transplantation, as well as several reports of liver-related injuries.” (8). Though not “banned” in the US many companies subsequently stopped selling Kava and products and those that remained in the market were mandated to contain a detailed label warning relating to potential liver toxicity. Some researchers believe that extraction using solvents other than water create chemistries not found in traditional water extracts and these non-traditional extraction processes remove glutathione. This is a powerful antioxidant that the liver and plants produce to protect from peroxide and other free radical induced damage (7). More research is needed in this area though The World Health Organization in it’s 2007 report on the safety and efficacy of Kava noted: “2.1.3. Products from water-based suspensions and further synthetic preparations should be developed and tested in clinical trials and consideration given to using these in preference to acetonic and ethanolic extracts.” (9).
Of interesting note are the lack of studies using water extracts of the peeled roots and rhizomes, to evaluate the safety of traditional preparation methods. The dangerous preparations recommended for the removal from the market in the UK and other countries were based on the evaluation of acetone and ethanol extracts, that did not respect or adhere to traditional extraction methods. This is despite WHO recommending studying water based traditional beverages.
Clinical trials and scientific research
One effort in the right direction was initiated in a study conducted in 2009 called The Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study (KADSS). This was a 3-week placebo-controlled, double-blind, cross-over trial involving 60 adult participants (18–65) with elevated stable anxiety and varying levels of depressive symptoms. (4) It is one of the only studies we are aware of using an aqueous extract of Kava. In the study the researchers from Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia and School of Health, University of New England, Armidale, Australia concluded in their summary; “The study demonstrated that an aqueous extract of Kava was a safe and efficacious anxiolytic in participants with elevated, stable generalized anxiety and may also have antidepressant effects. In accordance with our results, aqueous preparations of Kava may tentatively be recommended for intermittent or short-term use in people with generalized anxiety. In cases of regular use, liver function tests and clinical examinations should be periodically conducted, and dosages should not exceed 250 mg of kavalactones per day. Kava should preferably not be consumed with alcohol, benzodiazepines, or anticonvulsants. This current study—and research that follows—may encourage the reassessment of Kava as a first-line treatment of anxiety. Such a decision would provide a significant expansion of viable treatment options for people with acute anxiety. It is necessary to continue more work in this area with aqueous extracts if we are to uncover the evidence contained in traditional preparations.” One of the practical limitations of the study is the lack of preparations commonly available for aqueous extracts of Kava. The majority of preparations are Ethanolic Tinctures or straight powder/dried roots of Kava. It is however landmark in its efforts to approximate a traditional beverage, which to date had not previously been accomplished.
A notable 8-week randomized, double-blind multi-center placebo controlled clinical trial in 129 out-patients was conducted in 2003 using a 95% ethanolic extract of 400mg kava standardized to contain 30% kavapyrones at an average dose of 120mg (5). The study concluded that the preparation was well tolerated and as effective as Buspirone and Opipramol in the acute treatment of out-patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This study is encouraging for the types of preparations that are available in areas where commerce on extracts is allowed. More research on the solvent and aqueous preparations is needed and would hopefully lead to the development of safe, evidenced based therapeutics which also align with traditional preparations of the plant.
The first time I gave a native Pentecost islander a taste of an Ethanolic extract made from their harvests the reaction was one of amazement, a bit of worry and a bit of disbelief that it was actually Kava as they whooped out a loud “Kava Strongfala hafkrangke!!!” in Bislama, translating to “Crazy Strong Kava!!!”.
The ‘mycorrhizian’ connection of plants and people
On my last trip to Vanuatu, I had the ultimate good grace to travel there with my son Cameron who was 22 at the time and studying Sustainable Tourism and Fisheries Biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. One of the goals was to see some Kava “gardens” as they call them on the Island of Ambrym and for Cam to see firsthand the results of a study he had read for a fisheries class investigating the impact of commercial fishing and coral bleaching on Efate island (6). We waited at the Port Vila International Airport for an 8 seat small engine flight to Ambrym Island with the customary live chicken in tow that I had become accustomed to on island visits with Frank. When we walked out to load the plane, Cam was asked to sit in the Co-Pilot seat up front as the Pilot needed proper weight distribution and he was about the same height and weight as our pilot, a nice young Fijian man about Cam’s age. The islands appeared and disappeared into the clouds amidst a turquoise coral backdrop with nothing but pelagic pacific waters as far as one could see on this thankfully clear day. We landed safely coming into the Ulei Airport, a small grass landing strip emerging out of the palms with a brick building containing a latrine. I hugged Cam a little extra tightly in gratitude once we were taxing in and also marveled at the thought of the original islanders making that trek across treacherous waters in a hand hewn outrigger canoes.
We met the Chief of the village (Aram) that was farming the Kava who also ran a small shop with essentials that came in with the Kava trade. Aram was carrying a rifle which was something I had never seen on the islands before but was assured it was only to hunt fruit bats or Flying Foxes in the local language. Such is life in the bush, but I would later learn that the rifle was in fact for our protection since a neighboring tribe had gotten word of this one’s success in trade with Kava to pharmaceutical companies and was making threats. The chief confided to me that his brother was sick with “stomach cancer” and it was putting a strain on harvesting and planting Kava since he was responsible for a small crew and becoming unable to work. I immediately went to work scouring the landscape for plants I may recognize that may be beneficial and asked what he was doing for food and medicine. Later during that trip while hiking to the active Volcano (Benbow) as we made our way through the forested part of the Lahar, I spotted two species of fungi that surprised and delighted me: a Ganoderma species and Coriolus versicolor. I made a mental note of their location, took some pictures, wrote a note in my journal but did not take any of them as I only wanted to ask the chief if he knew about them or if there was any use of them known to his tribe. Our Volcano guide from the village; Solomon had not known about them and said they don’t eat any of those since they don’t know if they are poisonous or not. I showed the chief the photos who also had no experience with them when we returned to the village the next day told him how to prepare the fruiting bodies of those fungi (The Mushroom ‘caps’) if he felt inclined by making a decoction for his brother to drink for his stomach and vitality. He was grateful for my time and sharing and promised strong kava when we returned to the village nakamal that night to drink.
This exchange of knowledge and caring was facilitated through the business of botanicals and the plants themselves and is an unspoken language of unity that compels one to act with ethics and compassion. The plants take you on an amazing journey and the road maps for proper engagement can be found in the language of cultural tradition, the plants themselves, and the soil web connection that is emerging as the center of it all, facilitating a community of interconnectedness and interdependence.
- Applequist, Wendy L.; Lebot, Vincent (25 April 2006). “Validation of Piper methysticum G. Forst var. wichmannii (Piperaceae)”. Novon: A Journal for Botanical Nomenclature. 16 (1): 3–4. doi:10.3417/1055-3177(2006)16[3:VOPMVW]2.0.CO;2
- Kava: The Pacific Drug, Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin; Lamont Lindstrom. Copyright Date: 1992. Published by: Yale University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt211qwxb Pages: 256
- Sarris J, Kavanagh DJ, Adams J, Bone K, Byrne G. Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study (KADSS): a mixed methods RCT using an aqueous extract of Piper methysticum G. Forst. Complement Ther Med. 2009 Jun;17(3):176-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2009.01.001. Epub 2009 Feb 7. PMID: 19398072.
- Boerner RJ, Sommer H, Berger W, Kuhn U, Schmidt U, Mannel M. Kava-Kava extract LI 150 is as effective as Opipramol and Buspirone in Generalised Anxiety Disorder–an 8-week randomized, double-blind multi-centre clinical trial in 129 out-patients. Phytomedicine. 2003;10 Suppl 4:38-49. doi: 10.1078/1433-187x-00309. PMID: 12807341.
- Peter A. Whitton, Andrew Lau, Alicia Salisbury, Julie Whitehouse, Christine S. Evans: Kava lactones and the kava-kava controversy, Phytochemistry, Volume 64, Issue 3, 2003, Pages 673-679, ISSN 0031-9422, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9422(03)00381-9.