Shirley Campbell is a social anthropologist with a special interest in the indigenous peoples of Australia, Melanesia, and the Pacific. After growing up in California, she has widely traveled and experienced firsthand the ways in which communities form and develop distinct, yet interrelated cultures.
It is an interesting fact that most human cultures have cultivated and used some kind of stimulant or narcotic. The relationship between psychoactive substances and human consumption stretches back as far as is traceable. Hunter-gatherers were well aware of various plants that altered sensations, while early cultivators learned to encourage natural yeasts developing in various grains and fruits to produce alcoholic beverages. Native Americans utilized a variety of fungi and succulents to produce psychoactive effects, while the Chinese found a peaceful stupor from poppies. As I write, imbibing the seductive aroma of freshly brewed coffee, itself a popular stimulant dating back to the 15th century, I reflect on our appetite for substances that mildly or radically alter our mental state. In the South Pacific, a strong kava drink was the elixir of choice.
A Kava Drink’s Customs
Although debate continues over the origin of the cultivar, piper methysticm, the overwhelming evidence points to northern Vanuatu. Known in English as kava, this mildly narcotic drink is today consumed by far-reaching people in the Pacific who did not traditionally consume the beverage. For example, drinking kava has become very popular among Aboriginal Australians, as an arguably preferred substance to alcohol for its calming rather than stimulating effects. However, kava drinks figure more prominently in ritual and social contexts closer to its origins. In Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Pohnpei in Micronesia, and in much of Polynesia, there are cultural protocols for its preparation and consumption. These protocols specify who is able to process the root, make the drink, serve those assembled, the order in which people are served, and even who is allowed to drink this dishwater-looking beverage. These ‘rules’ are often associated with the context for which the drink is being made and consumed—marriage, funeral, acknowledging a position of power, reconciliation between rivals, and so on. Today, a strong kava drink is also more socially available in ‘kava bars’ where men, and sometimes women, frequent at the end of a working day to drink, sing songs, and tell stories before dropping off to a deep, dreamless sleep. Chewed, grated, pulverized, or in powder form, kava preparation and consumption has a ritual aura akin to Japanese tea ceremonies.
A Kava Drink’s Roots
The plant’s origins feature in mythology. The symbolism associated with kava suggests deep-rooted cultural significance. Although narratives in myth vary greatly between cultures, speakers, and audiences, there are two general themes about its origins. Firstly, the origin of kava is associated with the human corpse, often out of the decomposing vagina of a woman. Secondly, it is the benevolence of a god or culture hero who bestows the plant on a population from the heavens or from distant shores via outrigger canoe. For a comprehensive read on kava, one cannot do better than Kava: The Pacific Elixir by V. Lebot, M. Martin and L. Lindstrom.
A Kava Drink’s Regulations
Vanuatu regulates its kava in the same way the French market their fine wine traditions. While there are 247 types of kava drink recognized in Vanuatu, only some of these are considered ‘strong’ enough and of superior quality for export. Vanuatu’s export regulations state that only varieties of the ‘noble’ status, derived from plants over five years old and organically farmed, can be exported. My last experience with kava was on the island of Ambyrm in Vanuatu on Zegrahm’s Faces of Melanesia expedition. It was towards the end of our visit when the local kava bar was offering ‘high-tide’ and ‘low-tide’ bowls. Forgetting about the strength of kava from Vanuatu I opted for the ‘high-tide;’ served in a coconut bowl, the level of liquid poured reflected the rise and fall of the tides. Not a beverage to be sipped, I downed the drink together with some of our intrepid guests and a few locals! It didn’t take long for the effects to be felt. First the characteristic numbing of lips followed by altered vision and a strong desire to sit quietly in mellow reflection. As I remember the occasion, I think I made a mental note—while in Vanuatu a ‘low-tide’ is more than enough!