The Origins of Kava and How It Came To Hawaii
In this section we want to give you a little history about Kava and how it came to Hawaii. The bulk of this information was copied from the Excellent Book, “Hawaiian ‘Awa, Views of an Ethnobotanical Treasure”. It was edited by Ed Johnston and Helen Rogers. There are many excellent articles by different authors in this book. Besides information on the origins, there are articles on Folklore, Chemotypes, Chemistry of Kava, Hawaiian Cultivars, Drink Preparation, and Growing Kava. In this article, we are going to concentrate on Kava and how it came to Hawaii:
‘Awa’s (Kava) origin has been called “one of the classic enigmas of Oceanic Ethnobotany (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992). It is found throughout migratory routes of Pacific Islanders, who prized the drink made from the rootstock. The Hawaiian Islands were the final stop in ‘awa’s long voyage from Melanesia through Polynesia. Over the centuries, the various Pacific regions developed unique cultivars of this plant, each with its own chemical profile. According to Lebot, Merlin, and Linstrom (1992, 53) “it is possible that all kava cultivars trace back to a single ancestral plant somewhere in northern Vanuatu that has been repeatedly cloned, developed, and dispersed by stem cuttings over perhaps three millennia.”
Kava lost the ability to produce seed during the course of its long history thus native cultivators propagated it through stem cuttings. Pacific Islanders produced varieties of Kava by selecting the somatic mutations sometimes arising as offshoots of the parent. They would take cuttings and cultivate it. If they didn’t like the effects, they would quit growing it. This selection process is responsible for the various cultivars that we have today.
As Pacific Islanders migrated throughout the vast ocean of scattered islands, they brought with them their most important plants. This is the way ‘awa came to Hawaii. The early settlers brought “canoe plants”, probably from the Marquesas, and propagated them on the island of Hawaii.
‘Awa in Hawaii was considered a sacred drink. Outside of water and coconut water, no other drink was known. Its effect is to relax mind and body and was used by the farmer and fisherman for this purpose. Medical Kahunas (learned men) had many uses for it. It was customary for chiefs to drink it before meals. It was essential on special occasions and at social gatherings.
The Kava farmers in Hawaii kept the mutations that pleased them and discarded the rest. The result is the thirteen distinct cultivars that we see in Hawaii today. It is not surprising that the Hawaiian Kava are highest in those Kavalactones most valued for their pleasant effects. Those plants have a chemotype that begin with 4 and are rich in the Kavain Kavalactone that is known for its euphoric and social effects.