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Kava History on the Islands

The ancient origins of kava drinking dates back at least 3,000 years. Kava is found in the South Pacific and is traditionally drunk by many of the island cultures. Although the exact origin of kava is still debated, the largest number of species of kava plants are grown in Vanuatu and Fiji. Historically, the island communities were interconnected through substantial trade networks and kava was taken by seafarers on journey’s between islands. This eventually led to the spread of kava throughout other parts of the Melanesian Islands such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the Polynesian Islands including Tonga, Samoa, and the Hawaiian Islands, and the Micronesian Islands. These trading practices not only promoted the physical spread of kava, but also incentivized cultural interactions and the exchange of knowledge, ultimately shaping the socio-economic landscape of the Pacific Islands. Local communities began adapting their own cultivation methods for preparation and consumption, as well as the roles it played within the society. This was based upon the unique environments and social structures of each individual island, resulting in the rich diversity of kava variations and practices across the region as a shared symbol of cultural identity, community, and spirituality. 



Each of the different islands has their own unique kava strains with distinct flavors and effects, ranging from muscle relaxation and stress relief to uplifted mood and euphoria. Kava is highly regarded for its medicinal properties as its calming effects make it a natural remedy for a variety of ailments such as insomnia, stress, and anxiety. Fascinating as this might be, kava is much more than an herbal restorative and has remained deeply rooted in island culture for centuries. 


Kava is used largely throughout the islands during social gatherings, religious & cultural ceremonies, and political practices. In Fiji, kava is named the national drink and has a symbolic function of bringing two groups of people together. When one visits a new village, it is mandatory to bring the kava root as a gift. The community then gathers to prepare the beverage. Once ready, the person leading the group will say “BULA'', meaning “to long life and good health” in Fijiann. Everyone else in turn responds with “BULA'' and the communal drinking begins. Similarly to Fiji, places such as Vanuatu and Samoa hold kava ceremonies that are representative of major life events from births and weddings to rituals and funerals. The drink is prepared prior to the ceremony in a large, intricately-decorated wooden kava bowl called a tanoa. The kava is then served in a bilo, a special cup made from the halves of coconut shells. The participants of the community sit in a circle and the highest-ranking individual begins by drinking first. It is then passed throughout the group in descending order based upon rank. Following the ceremonial drinking, everyone gathered are friends and the rest of the festivities follow.


The tradition of kava ceremonies encourages social bonding and unity within communities, placing further emphasis on their relations with one another, the land, and their ancestors. 

Kava plays a crucial role in the political practices on the islands. The ceremonies are used as the foundation for these interactions as they establish an order of mutual respect and equality. This allows for open and productive dialogue with shared perspectives and concerns from all participants, signaling unity, collaboration, and peace. During times of conflict, chiefs and leaders from different communities come together for kava ceremonies as a means to resolve issues and settle disagreements. Sharing kava is representative of the dedication to peaceful conflict resolution and maintaining close relations with one another. 



For many Pacific Islanders, the drink holds an immense amount of spiritual significance. The mental clarity and open mindedness that come along with the calming properties of kava is believed to help individuals connect and communicate with higher powers of the spiritual realm. Kava is used as an offering to these ancestral spirits, gods, and chiefs as a symbol of compliance and respect to gain guidance, protection, and blessings. This aspect of spirituality is additionally found in the rituals of preparation and consumption of the drink. The physical process of peeling, washing, and preparing the kava root accentuates spiritual cleansing, purity, and renewal. 



The traditional preparation of kava began by cutting the root into small pieces, they were then chewed by various people before being spat into a bowl and mixed with coconut milk. This was primarily done by children or beautiful young women as it was believed they had reduced bacteria levels compared to others. The act of chewing the root was believed to increase the extraction of active ingredients in the kava through the combination of enzymes in the saliva and creating a better taste overall. This was then filtered through coconut fibers and squeezed thoroughly in combination with water until it was evenly mixed. Though this traditional method is still used by some island locals, kava preparation today has shifted to much more sanitary practices. Nowadays, the root is ground, grated, or pounded as opposed to being chewed. The kava powder is placed into a strainer bag that is tightly tied off to keep pieces of the root from escaping. It’s then placed into a bowl of water where it is forcefully kneaded and squeezed in intervals until the liquid has turned an oily brown. Once this is done, the batch of kava is stirred, served, and ready to enjoy! 



Kava has an extremely rich and unique history that has extended beyond its origins. Today, kava has expanded to reach global markets, resulting in the increase of production and circulation. This in turn has led to the widespread distribution of kava and its cultural practices around the world.


Sources 






https://kalmwithkava.com/the-bilo-story-coconut-cups-for-kava/#:~:text=History%3A%2 0Coconut%20Cups%20for%20Kava&text=In%20many%20traditional%20kava%20cere monies,ranking%20individual%20at%20the%20ceremony. 







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