Unlike their Melanesian neighbors, the Oceanic people of New Guinea have a long and rich history with our favorite beverage. But before we discuss this, let’s look at New Guinea today.
Splitting off from Australia during the last glacial period during the Pleistocene Epoch, New Guinea is the second largest island in the world (behind Greenland which is nearly three times the size and sadly kava free due to it’s often times Arctic climate). Located just south of the equator and approximately 100 miles North of Australia, this Oceanic Island is a landmass divided. The western half of the island is the southern tip of Indonesia, containing it’s provinces of Papua and West Papua. The Eastern half of the Island exists under self rule and is known as Papua New Guinea or more formally, The Independent State of Papua New Guinea. The name New Guinea was given by the first European explorers (most likely As far as Kava usage in concerned this article covers the entire island, but for more specific current day trends we will focus on Papua New Guinea, not Indonesia.
New Guinea and Geography
The mainland of New Guinea is dominated by the Owen Stanley Mountain Range. This central mountainous spine splits the island length wise and has the tallest peaks in Oceania with some in the western half of the island topping over 16,000 feet. Due to such heights, New Guinea is one of the only islands in Oceania to have annual snowfall.
Being such a strong and tall range, the Owen has left the island with a dozen different ecoregions, from sub-alpine grasslands to coastal Mangroves, mountainous rainforests and coral atolls. The range is also riddled with massive cave systems, many of which like much of the Island itself; have yet to be fully explored.
The island itself is over 300,000 square miles and is surrounded by nearly 1000 smaller islands. The majority of this land (over 170,000 square miles) falls under the jurisdiction of Papua New Guinea, the balance belonging to Indonesia). Likewise, while the main island and the surrounding archipelago are populated by nearly 7.2 million people, 6.1 million live in Papua New Guinea.
New Guinea and Diversity
The name New Guinea and diversity are synonymous. From a cultural perspective, the island has nearly 1000 different cultural communities. Although many sharing similar traits, there are all different in their own way. Along with the huge number of cultures inevitably come a huge number of dialects (826 and counting). This gives Papua New Guinea the title of world’s most languages (representing 12 percent of the world’s spoken languages.)
With the foreboding country side, in accessible mountain highlands, and vast rainforests, it is thought there are numerous tribes yet to have made contact with modern man-although were pretty sure they’ve all made contact with kava.
Similar to the cultural melting pots of New Caledonia and The Solomon Islands, New Guinea has a diverse history of water born visitors. It’s believed the first visitors to New Guinea’s shores were Papuan speaking settlers. Human remains have been found dating back more than 50,000 years. Then, as recently as 2,500 ago, our favorite Melanesian settlers arrived-the Lapitas. Like other places they had already settled, they brought their cultural contributions such as the outrigger canoe, domesticated animals (pigs and dogs fishing techniques, and pottery. Unlike other island chains, when they arrived in New Guinea, they tended to populate the smaller island archipelago, and leave the main island to its more permanent settler. The reason for the reason for this is till up for debate. However, it is known that many tribes in New Guinea were (and still are today) not welcoming to strangers. Some in fact practiced the ancient ritual of headhunting as late as the early 1960’s (and maybe still today). That’d be enough to keep us on our atoll sipping some Kava and eating ribs.
Today there are hundreds of ethnic groups populating the island. The largest of these groups are the Papuans (who have been there for over 50,000 years). Today there are also sizable populations from China, Europe, Australia, the Philippines, Polynesian, and Micronesia. All of these cultures have in some way affected the entire cultural community of New Guinea. That being said, less than 12 percent of the population lives in an urban center. Most islanders choose to live in their ancient tribal villages. This makes New Guinea one of the least densely populated islands in the world.
This diversity does not stop with the island people. New species of flora and fauna are discovered almost daily. New Guinea is an ethnobotanist’s, biologist’s, and anthropologist’s dream land. Vast unexplored stretches of land bring scientists from around the world to study here.
New Guinea and Kava
The historical and contemporary use of kava is strong in the roots of the New Guinea people. In language alone the history of kava is rich. In part due to the 823 dialects there are nearly 40 different words for kava. Kava has been used in a ceremonial capacity through out Papuan history. Today it is even used as a means of exchange. Probably due to the geographical isolation of the New Guinea inhabitants, kava is not grown as a cash crop and there are no kava bars. But given nearly 90 percent of the population lives a tribal life, it’s safe to say that kava permeates the lives of most residents of this Melanesian Island.
There is a rich mythology surrounding the origins of kava in New Guinea. Many divergent tales form differencing tribes and regions can be found. The strange part is they all have one thing in common-kava somehow came from the kangaroo. If from the naval of a dead one, it’s singed hair post rotisserie, or grown out of a drop of the kangaroos mislaid male seed; the people of New Guinea feel strongly about their kava/kangaroo origin.
They also feel strongly about it use in traditional medicine. The internal part of the bark is used for toothaches, scraped bark and masticated roots are used to relieve sore throats, and the juice from the leaves are used to treat cuts. Kava is also consumed in quantity as an anesthetic before the application of traditional tattoos; a beautiful and painful practice.
Beyond medicinal, kava is consumed as part of both ritualistic and every day life. Traditionally beaten on a large flat stone, the root is pulverized. It is then left to soak in a traditional bowl, much like our contemporary punch bowl. They will then take smaller bowls, often times intricately carved seed pods (such as the coconut), which will dispense among the people. A drink always to be shared, kava has bridged many a cultural divide in New Guinea; a land of many divergent paths-that all in some way lead to kava.