Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Kava ~ *Kavakava
PROTO POLYNESIAN: Piper methysticum (Piperaceae) and the drink made from it (kava) .
Ultimately from Proto Oceanic *kawaRi "roots with special properties" through Proto Remote Oceanic *kawa "ginger, 'kava', and fish-poison plants" and Proto Central Pacific *kawa "Piper methysticum, 'kava'; also: sour, bitter".


As a word referring specifically to the cultivated plant later given the designation Piper methysticum by botanists, "kava" seems to have originated in Vanuatu in a group of Proto Eastern Oceanic dialects (grouped as Proto Remote Oceanic), before the later push into the Fiji area. From Vanuatu the plant was carried over ensuing centuries by migrating groups throughout the Central Pacific / Polynesian area, and to a much lesser extent back to the Solomons and parts of what is now New Guinea. Malcolm Ross (Proto Oceanic Lexicon, Volume 3), suggests that kava is probably a sterile cultivated variety of Piper subbullatum (it can be propagated only vegetatively).

The roots and to a lesser extent the leaves of the plant have relatively mild and generally benign narcotic properties. A drink, more recreational in Vanuatu but of great ceremonial importance in Fiji and Polynesia, is prepared from steeping the pounded or masticated roots in cold water. The young roots have a higher concentration of the narcotic elements and are preferred for brewing in Vanuatu, whereas the less potent roots of more mature plants are used in Fiji and Polynesia. The drink or chewing the roots or leaves has the effect of a mild anaesthetic, numbing the lips and tounge, after which the partaker generally feels slightly euphoric, and is likely to talk both freely and reasonably sensibly as the kava seems to promote both relaxation and clear thinking, as well as a general feeling of well being, somewhat similar to the chewing of betel nuts wrapped in kava leaves, but with less long-term damage to the teeth.

Related species and varieties of kava are often designated by reduplicating the root and following it with a qualifier. In Eastern Polynesia and some of the Western Polynesian "outliers" like East Futuna, a compound form kavakava atua (or kavakava ätua) denotes other plants in the Piper genus (e.g.P. tristachyon in the Marquesas and P. graeffii in East Futuna), or plants from the related genus Macropiper (e.g. Macropiper latifolium in both Rarotonga and the Marquesas). In the Cook Islands the reduplicated form, unqualified, denotes a species of Pittosporum (I do not have enough information about this tree to speculate on why this may be so). The compound form does kawakawa ätua not seem to have been used in Aotearoa. Piper methysticum either was not brought to Aotearoa or did not thrive here. Both the root word and the reduplicated form refer in Mäori to the related species Macropiper excelsum, which is an important plant ceremonially and medicinally and also has mild narcotic properties.

Decoctions of the root and poultices of the leaves of Piper methysticum were (and are) used for a great variety of medicinal purposes, from inducing sleep to treating headaches and persistent sores. Reflecting its importance in Polynesian and other Oceanic cultures, there is a huge literature on kava, both the drink and the plant: a few key references are mentioned in the notes of "further reading", below.

Tongan: Kava (Piper methysticum [Piperaceae])
Niuean: Kava (P. methysticum)
Samoan: 'ava(P. methysticum)
Rapanui: Kava ("bitter tasting")
Tahitian: 'Ava(P. methysticum)
Marquesan: Kava, 'ava (P. methysticum)
Hawaiian: 'awa(P. methysticum)
Tuamotuan: Kava(P. methysticum)
Rarotongan: Kava (P. methysticum [Piperaceae]; Kawakawa Pittosporum rarotongense [Pittosporaceae])
: kawa, kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum)

Note: In Mäori, Rapanui, Rarotongan and Tuamotuan kawa or kava also has the sense of "bitter", which is not the case for most Western Polynesian languages.

Related Words: kawariki

'awa (kava - Piper methysticum), Hawai'i
'awa (Piper methysticum) leaves, Hawai'i

Young 'awa (Piper methysticum) plant, showing jointed stems, Limahuli Gardens, Kauai, Hawai'i

'awa seedling among ferns, Limahuli Gardens, Hanalei, Kauai, Hawai'i

Young 'awa plants, Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu

Piper methysticum [kava] roots ready for pounding

Macropiper latifolium [kawakawa ätua] (Mo'orea)

Macropiper latifolium (Mo'orea)

Further information: There are very interesting discussions of the etymology of the term *kawa in reference to Piper methysticum in The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic, Volume 3, pp. 395-6, and in a paper by John Lynch, "Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava", Oceanic Linguistics 41, 2002, pp. 493-513. There is a wealth of information about the medicinal properties of several species of Piper and Macropiper in Murdoch Riley's Herbal (pp. 195-8). Two books, among others, which have comprehensive information about both the plant and its uses are: Kava: The Pacific Elixir: The Definitive Guide to Its Ethnobotany, History, and Chemistry, by Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin and Lamont Lindstrom (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1997); and Kava: From Ethnology to Pharmacology, by Yadhu N. Singh (London, Taylor & Francis, 2004).

Some on-line sources of information are the Hawaiian "Canoe Plants" web site, the Hawaiian Kava Research and Development Center site (which includes an interesting video of harvesting the roots of a 4-year old plant, and the Cook Islands Biodiversity database, which has pages on both Piper methysticum and Macropiper latifolium.

There is a page on Pittosporum rarotongensis, one of the more widespread forest trees in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands Biodiversity database, but it has few clues as to why this tree is called kawakawa.

Photographs: The photograph of the kava roots is from the "wordpress" database, those of Macropiper latifolium are from the University of California at Berkeley's Moorea Digital Flora Project database (which also has several photos of P. methysticum). The others are by RB.

Hue flower

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
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