Origin of Kava / Where Kava Originated

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.

11 Responses

  1. The studies were scientific analysis. If we were to conclude as you have that it is all speculation then surely you must provide some alternative suggestions as to why this is. The language Kava and yagona refer only to the bitterness of the drink, where as Malogu (used on Penama and Shefa Province, Vanuatu) refers to the euphoria or “subdued” effect that kava gives. In Vanuatu kokona, meaning bitter, is used as an analagical name, an endearing name, for Kava, and this nick name might have followed its migration and its original name forgotten. Historical evidence suggests Vanuatu was engaged in a huge kava trade, see David Luders’ contribution to the journal of Polynesian Society.

    Kava is now the Pacific Drink so lets enjoy it.. Long Live Kava…!


  2. i like this!!!

    i was doing this story on kava and upon my back grounding re-search on the internet i came across this article and it has helped me a lot.
    im soo grateful for the publisher for if it wasn’t for you guys my assignment on kava would have been impossible to cover.
    im a student journalist and i find this piece of work quiet impressive and very informative.

    i thank all those who work tirelessly to put up this piece of work, it has helped me and im sure that it will surely help those too who are going to be doing assignment or stories on kava.

    i thank you soo much for your help.

    Great job all!!!!

  3. Glad we could be of help! Hopefully you’ve had an opportunity to sample some Kava while doing your research to be even more informed about this amazing ancient plant.

  4. Just a thought.. I’m from the island of Pohnpei, Micronesia. Kava also plays an important role in our culture. Unlike other Pacific Region islands, we do not advertise, distribute, or even profit from this sacred plant. As I was told by my elders, a man was out farming and saw a rat chewing on a kava root. When the rat walked away from the root, he noticed it was walking kind of funny in a relaxed way. The next day, the farmer returned and saw the rat again doing its things. So he decided to try himself. Next thing you know, he started to plant and grow kava on his land. I guess my question is, if Vanuatu was the origin of this root, why did we (micronesia) discover it the rattly way? thank you

  5. Dear Nape,

    I’m not exactly sure – kava has been in cultivation for such a long time that it is hard to know exactly how different areas learned about it and started to use it. Thank you for sharing that story, though! :) It’s fascinating to learn of the different tales of the discovery of this wonderful medicine!

  6. thanks for that information,
    i have read some history about captain cook and discovries in vanuatu, it was interesting he mention someting about kava.

    thanks boss

  7. Apart from the scientific evidence there exists a wealth of information about pre european Pacific Kava trading between Pacific Islands. Vanuatu was the traditional centre of that trade. The name of Kava in the central islands and nothern Vanuatu is malogu (or namalogu). Lebot did mention that in one Fijian dialect this word means “subdue”, which reflects a much deeper understanding of the plant’s properties. Therefore, I believe this to be the real name of the plant piper methysticum, unlike the more endearing name yagona or kava which according to Lebot, they both mean bitter, thus refering to taste.

  8. I’m not a kava drinker..in fact i don’t even like the taste..so i’m doing a debate on
    “kava drinking is an evil social practise” an trying to find an article thats pro-kava then i stumble on this website…an i have to say it’s been quite an informative journey..esp the part about liver damage wen all along it was the leaves an how some suppliers mixed it all up…

    yeah well anyway..thanks a lot..i ‘ve really used marjority of my info from your site..and hey kava is not so bad after all…

    Good on you!!!!

  9. Thanks for your comment, Mary! :) We’re glad we were able to provide some good information and change your mind about kava! The taste can definitely take some getting used to, but it’s an extremely medicinal, powerful plant! Thank you for being open to changing your viewpoint!

  10. […] popular pastime throughout Vanuatu’s islands, and there is some genetic evidence to suggest that kava may have originated there (another candidate is Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia). Regardless of where kava is […]

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