Kava: Mythical Origins And Epic Coevolution

Kava is a plant that if prepared properly, from the correct species, relieves anxiety and opens certain areas of perception, but must be reproduced by humans.

Frank King Jr. and Bill Chioffi with Borogu kava on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, July 2017. Photo credit: C. 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. Forstor 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. 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 gods delivered by descending from the sky or sailing across a long ocean voyage to give the islanders the original gift of kava3.

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.

Kava Origin Story

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, coming and going with the water and bait, and 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. 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 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.

Ulei Village Elder Preparing Fresh Borogu Kava Ambrym Island Vanuatu Jul 2017 Photo Cred B Chioffi Rotated

Ulei village elder preparing fresh Borogu kava on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, July 2017. Photo credit: B. Chioffi

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 islands. 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 work1,3.

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 are 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 if prepared properly, from the correct species, relieves anxiety and opens certain areas of perception, but 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. There’s a slight feeling of warmth, an ease in tension without cognitive inhibition, which 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 beverage2. 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.


  1. Applequist, Wendy L.; Lebot, Vincent, 25 April 2006. “Validation of Piper methysticum G. Forst var. wichmannii (Piperaceae).” Novon: A Journal for Botanical Nomenclature16(1): 3–4. doi:10.3417/1055-3177(2006)16[3:VOPMVW]2.0.CO;2
  2. http://wehewehe.org/gsdl2.85/cgi-bin/hdict?a=d&d=D1669
  3. Kava: The Pacific Drug, Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin; Lamont Lindstrom. 1992, Yale University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt211qwxbPage 256

Reprinted courtesy of HerbalReality.com.

Bill Choiffi is an herbalist with over 25 years of experience in the production of botanical medicine. He serves on numerous herbal boards, and has made friends and forged relationships across the globe with manufacturers and suppliers to develop new products and improve existing botanical therapeutics.

Learn more about kava and meet Bill Choiffi at the 16th Annual International Herb Symposium online or in-person June 9-11, 2023 in Norton, MA, where he will present three workshops on kava and functional fungi. Day passes available.

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