There is often quite heated controversy in some circles regarding the origins of Kava. The bottom line is that anyone who claims to know where Kava first appeared or where it truly comes from: They’re only speculating. Leading botanists in the study of the origin of Kava believe that it first appeared in northern Vanuatu. This belief was studied in depth by an agronomist named Lebot who worked feverishly (almost obsessively) in the early 1980s in Vanuatu in quest of an answer to this question. They provided a great deal of evidence supporting their position, and in 1992, the team of Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom concluded that Vanuatu was the origin of Kava.
A man named Brunton (1989) presented arguments that Kava might have originated elsewhere in Melanesia and offers Papua new Guinea as the true origin. Regardless of it’s exact roots, Kava is, without question, a plant that is revered throughout Oceania, and we do know that Kava has been enjoyed far before written history, and its place in Oceanic culture was deeply-rooted before Captain Cook discovered this area of the world in the late 1700’s.
An excerpt from “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava” from Oceanic Linguistics – Volume 41, Number 2, December 2002, pp. 493-513” explains it best:
“From the beginning, Lebot showed that there was a much greater range in Vanuatu than anywhere else of kava varieties and that these varieties were usually more potent chemically than those from elsewhere (e.g., total kavalactone analyses of Vanuatu kavas were two to five times that of common Fijian varieties). The chemical analyses were also quite diverse. Equally significantly, the name for kava in local languages was as diverse as nigui (Hiw, Torres Is), maloku (Marino, Maewo), mele (Sa, South Pentecost), bir (Tur, Santo), hae (Malo), nimvulum (South West Bay, Malekula), nikawa (Kwamera, Tanna), kava (Aneityum) to select some (Lebot and Cabalion 1986:83-93).
This suggests an origin more ancient than in Fiji or Polynesia. Only the last two of these names are cognate with the Polynesian kava. These occur in the south and it is quite likely that they were introduced there from Polynesia (Crowley 1994:95; Lebot, Merlin and Lindstrom 1992:52).”
Furthermore, Vanuatu also has over 80 morphotypes as opposed to Fiji’s 12, Tonga’s 7, and Samoa’s 6. Vanuatu also has 2 wild forms of kava where Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa have none. If Vanuatu is the true origin of the kava we know today, by default, the Vanuatuans would have the longest relationship with the sacred root. Also, the distribution of the three “cultivated” types of Kava also points to domestication first having occurred in Vanuatu. One occurs only in northern Papua New Guinea and is of minor significance. The other two occur in Vanuatu. One of these appears also in southern Papua New Guinea. The other is the sole genetic type occurring in Fiji, Polynesia and Micronesia.
The conclusion of Lebot, Merlin and Lindstrom that kava was domesticated in Vanuatu has never been sufficiently challenged, and further research has only reinforced their conclusions. The kava found in Fiji and Polynesia are most-likely plants that had its origins in Vanuatu, which reflects that of Firth’s records as well. More recent research also tried to narrow the origin of kava even more, and has suggested northern Vanuatu, possibly Maewo island as the true “root” of kava kava.
Lastly, if we look at the migration through Oceania, archeological records indicate that Fiji was the first to be settled, then Vanuatu (although it’s close and there is a debate) followed approximately 1000 years later by Samoa, shortly (give or take 500 years or so) there after Tonga was settled. So, if Tonga was the last place to be settled and kava generally was introduced by migration, than it stands to reason that Tonga has had the shortest relationship with kava and that Vanuatu has the longest.
But again, it’s all just speculation. We’re just thrilled to have this amazing and versatile plant to heal, help, and enjoy. We’re always looking for more information on this plant especially when it comes to the true origin of kava.