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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Kava
Part One


Visitors to Spain and Eivissa should be well familiar with 'Cava' - with a 'c' - the Spanish form of champagne. Our friend Sinclair must have imbibed some in his headier days here on the island. It can still be purchased rather cheaply here (unless one goes for the more 'up market' brands, some of which can be just as good - I am told, as I don't drink alcohol - as some of the French brands). I just hope we have no French readers! But there is another form, Kava (sometimes called 'Kavakava' in Europe), which is completely different, which arrived here on the island in tablet form in the health food shops and pharmacies early last year and was available until mid-January this year. What is it and why is it no longer available?

This is a rather long and complex story, not really to do with Eivissa/Ibiza, but it touches Eivissa and most other places in Europe - and the US - and has its roots, so to speak, in the South Pacific. It is a very timely topic at the moment and some readers may have seen press reports regarding kava within the last few months. Unfortunately most of the European press coverage has not been very positive, portraying a lack of understanding of what kava is and accepting almost without question certain medical and press reports emanating recently from Switzerland and Germany. In the latter country a form of 'press frenzy' - almost like a pack of hungry sharks - managed to possibly almost irreparably damage the image of an important ritual and medicinal plant highly respected by Pacific Islanders since time immemorial. The story of kava covers a third of the earth's surface, possibly goes back several thousand years and its recent entry into the 'white man's world' exemplifies much of the cultural arrogance and cultural misunderstanding that seem to be the main characteristics of our 'modern' societies vis-à-vis the more ancient surviving traditional societies of the world. Certain members of our own societies often tend to think that our modern technological superiority reflects cultural superiority and that those 'isolated tribes' that come into contact with us should be suitably impressed. Some get rather offended when the latter often do not seem impressed at all. There is a fundamental difference, though, between the 'How' cultures and the 'Why' cultures of the world. Our modern Euro-American cultures are prime examples of 'How' cultures: 'How can we go faster, live longer, buy more gadgets, live life on the edge, look younger and avoid death'? The more sensible cultures on earth would say 'Why'? to most of that. And that is what Pacific Islanders are saying about Europe right now: 'Why'?

Let me explain. For nearly a decade, many health food shops in the U.K. have stocked bottles of tablets labelled 'Kava' or 'Kavakava', 'to be taken to alleviate stress or anxiety'. In Germany, medicinal 'kava extract' has been used as an ingredient in anti-stress medicines for decades, and in fact German medical scientists have been working with kava extracts since 1860. Kava tablets have also been available in the US since the mid 1980s and became the 'in thing' in New York when I was there in 1998. I remember seeing Drug Stores and pharmacies in New York with big posters in their windows 'Yes, We Have KavaKava', etc - and I even got arrested at one point by the security guards of one major Drug Store as I tried to take photos of the posters. I assume they thought I might have been photographing the place with a view to planning a future raid. When I tried to explain to them what real kava was and where it came from, the guards' eyes gradually glazed over and they gently released me. In 1999 certain Spanish Health Food and Alternative Living magazines announced that kava would soon be coming to Spain. I remember thinking periodically over the last decade how long it often takes for our modern cultures to really accept something new from the so-called 'Third World' (I should point out here that I consider this term rather derogatory and that it is really our own modern world that should be called by that term, our world so removed by many steps from its real roots). In late January my wife and I visited one of the major Pharmacies in the Calle de las Farmacias of Vila (Eivissa/Ibiza Town) and I asked if they sold any kava extract medicines. I was told that they had been selling them, but had recently taken them off the shelves as they had, earlier that month, received a circular from the Spanish National Pharmacies Institute in Madrid to withdraw stocks until further notice. In a nearby health food shop there was a gap in the shelves where bottles of kava tablets should have been. No explanations. Nobody really knew why, just that they had received an official circular. As often happens, it is quite possible that those responsible for the circular did not really know either, they were merely copying others.

Kava is the name for a plant, for its root, for a drink made from its root and now for tablets and extract from that root sold in the West. The plant grows only in the Pacific. It first came to the attention of the English-speaking world after Captain Cook's first visit to Tahiti in 1769, when he and his scientists were invited to drink it ceremonially. They were suitably impressed, but slightly put off by the taste. It had a rather pleasing effect, and Cook's scientists originally dubbed the plant it was made from as piper inebrians, then changed that to piper methysticum (the 'drunk-making' or 'inebriating' pepper, it being a distant relative of the pepper plant). Early European explorers found that a drink made from the roots of this plant was drunk ritually throughout much of Polynesia, from Tonga to Samoa to the Cook Islands and Hawaii and back to Fiji. In Hawaii it is called 'Awa', in Tonga 'Kava', in Fiji 'Yaqona' (pronounced 'yanggona'). The root of these terms comes from an early Proto-Polynesian term meaning 'bitter'. 'Kava' is the name that has stuck and spread worldwide, rather like the origin of our word ‘coffee' or even 'tea'. Historians, explorers, writers and academics for long assumed that it was a purely Polynesian drink. Little did they know? Back in the hidden corner of the Southwest Pacific lay the real homeland of kava, the volcanic archipelago of Vanuatu, keeper of so many of the Pacific's secrets.

Traditionally there was no alcohol in the Pacific Islands. But Pacific Islanders had something better a gift from the Gods, from the Sprits, from the Mother Earth. It is Spirit in plant form. It is Peace. It is Respect. It is Harmony. It is Sounds from the World of the Ancestors. It is the Way of Prayer. It is (in some areas) Woman, so therefore changeable in mood, bestowing her favours gladly one day, denying them the next. It is (in some areas) man and therefore forbidden to women. It is Kava. The gift of the Gods to the Pacific and the gift of the Pacific to the World.

But the Gift was first given to a group of clans in northern Vanuatu. There, maybe several thousand years ago, ancestors of still surviving clans discovered how to artificially 'clone' a drinkable variety of the kava plant from a wild, non-drinkable parent plant. This wild source is a variety of pepper plant known by scientists as piper wichmannii, and this grows only in western Melanesia (that area comprised by West Papua, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu). Extracts from the roots of this wild plant are undrinkable, but modified forms are sometimes used in traditional medicines. Through generations of observation and experimentation, those wise men in northern Vanuatu managed to develop from this plant another variety - and then more - whose roots provided a drinkable extract whose effects, are remarkable. These roots contain no alcoholic substances, but an extremely complex array of 12 to 14 chemicals - mostly analgesics and anaesthetics - that are linked in such a complex interrelationship that it is almost impossible to reproduce by modern methods. It is also and extremely difficult to tell which are the essential ingredients for the effect the root extract gives when drunk. The psychoactive ingredients have been dubbed 'kavalactones' by modern scientists. The ingredients, when drunk, work on the central nervous system, through a reduction of activity in the spinal area, reducing cardiac rhythm and then stimulating and relaxing respiration. The whole effect is one of extremely pleasurable relaxation, with the mind remaining clear with a sometimes-increased focus. It is an extremely effective soporific and a mild narcotic, but non-addictive. Effects last only a few hours and the drinker wakes the next morning feeling fresh and revived. Medicinally, it cleanses the kidneys through its diuretic action, flushes out minor illnesses of the urino-genitary tract (and a good practical note for certain readers: if you happen to be in the first stages of a bout of gonorrhoea, it will get rid of that as well), removes aches and pains, gets rid of headaches, can assist in getting rid of skin pimples, and so on - the list is almost endless. On a practical note for European readers, it is also one of the most effective slimming aids known (and you don't have to waste hours running or jogging, waiting for that 'joggers high') and you can say goodbye to constipation problems (although neither of these topics are not of great concern to Pacific Islanders). But each subspecies of kava - and there are over 80 of them in Vanuatu - has its own special effects and use. Some are better for ritual/spiritual purposes, some better for medicinal use. One type can be used as a liver cleanser. Other types are of particular medicinal use for women - to ease pre-menstrual aches and pains, to give a painless childbirth, to facilitate lactation after birth, to eradicate menopausal flushes, fevers and aches - and so on.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, like anything - like coffee, tea, doughnuts, Smarties, steak, whatever - if one overdoes it over an extended period of time, one can slow down a bit. But as soon as one stops drinking for a couple of days one is as right as rain. Untold thousands of Europeans and Americans have benefited from taking kava tablets or kava extract over the last decade to combat our modern society's enemy, 'stress'. Now, just about when Eivissa and Spain were also about to receive the benefits of this most wondrous plant, it seems that it has been whisked away from us. Some European doctors have said that it may affect the liver. 'What?" say Pacific Islanders, who have never heard of any liver problems with kava - especially when at least one form of kava is actually used as a liver cleanser. Some European doctors think the problem lies with kava. Pacific Islanders think the problem lies with the modern medicinal/pharmaceutical industry in Europe and specifically in Germany. There is hope for Eivissa and Spain yet: the German government has not yet made an official decision on whether or not to prohibit medicinal kava, and the rest of Europe - and the US - are waiting for that decision as well. Next week I will explain why the Pacific Islanders are right, and why our western system seems to have been found wanting.

Kirk W Huffman