Over 3000 years ago the Lapita people, believed to be the ancestors of the Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people, colonised the Pacific. It was these competent seafarers from either Taiwan or the Philippines, who spread kava throughout the Pacific. They used kava ‘as a sedative, muscle relaxant, diuretic, and as a remedy for nervousness and insomnia’. Historians suggest that although the Lapita people used kava medicinally, the development of kava as a culturally significant plant did not extend from the Lapita culture and that it was more likely that the people of the eastern Lapita influence in the Pacific established Kava in their rituals and traditions. People from places such as; Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. These people of the Pacific continued to use kava as a remedial plant and firmly embedded it in their cultures. It is believed that kava originated in either Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu. Some historians suggest that the latter is more likely as they compare the wide use of betel nut in Papua New Guinea to the use of kava in Vanuatu and theorise that if kava originated in Papua New Guinea, that surely the use of kava would be more prevalent in their culture.
Types of Kava
There are two types of kava grown in Vanuatu, piper methysticum (noble and tudei kava) and piper wichmannii (ancestor of all kava). Noble kava takes 5 years to mature and the composition of the kavalactones – the active ingredients - are more favourable than that of the tudei kava, which can produce a kava hangover. There are some concerns that tudei varieties of kava may contain high concentrations of harmful compounds known as flavokavains which are not present in concerning amounts in noble kava. Tudei kava is quicker to grow, with plants reaching maturity within a year. This has been enticing for some farmers as ‘in recent years there have been reports of farmers attempting to grow "isa" or "palisi" [ignoble] cultivars in Hawaii, and of imports of dried “tudei” kava into Fiji for further re-exporting’. The exportation of kava in Vanuatu is highly regulated with legislation deeming high quality noble kava as the only kava allowed to be exported.
The name kava is derived from words throughout the Pacific which mean bitter, sour, potent and acrid. With that in mind, the flavour, somewhat earthy and peppery, may not be to everyone’s liking and may be an acquired taste. It is also advised to consume kava on an empty stomach as it may bring on nausea on a full stomach. You should never combine kava with alcohol.
When the kava hits your lips, you may feel a tingly numbing sensation - this is normal. That is then followed by a general sense of well-being and calm, which is why some people find it beneficial for treating anxiety. Leaving a good 15 minutes between serves (250 ml) will allow you to judge the effects of the drink - the effects will sneak up on you. Sensible amounts of kava are considered safe. People under the influence of this sedative drink will become sensitive to light so stay away from bright lights. Driving after drinking kava is not advised.
It is possible that kava will react to some medications, so you should seek medical advice before consuming kava if taking medication. In addition, extended and habitual consumption of kava, especially ignoble varieties, may lead to health issues.