Volume 108 1999 > Volume 108, No. 1 > Correspondence, p 107-108
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- 107
Kava as Beverage and Libation

In Frantisek Lichtenberk's (1998) interesting article on betel-chewing in the western Pacific he states that the reconstruction of a term for areca nut in a protolanguage does not necessarily mean that the speakers of it did chew betel. An analogous statement could be made in regard to the term kava and the drinking of kava. In his discussion of the use of kava in relation to the “Betel Line”, Lichtenberk writes generally of kava-drinking, and cites Tikopia in this connection “…kava-drinking managed to spread to Santa Cruz and Tikopia…” (p. 355). But as I have pointed out (Firth 1970:203), in Tikopia kava was very rarely drunk: it was poured out on the ground as a ritual offering to gods and ancestors, and as a medium of communication with them. The prime significance of the kava liquid, obtained by dripping water through macerated root of Piper methysticum, was religious. It is indeed my hypothesis that the formal social drinking of kava in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji had a religious basis which disappeared with the conversion of their peoples to Christianity.

It is because of this pagan religious association that kava is no longer used in Tikopia. The domesticated plant is no longer cultivated and was thought by 1966 to have died out. On the other hand, the recreational use of areca, which was formerly used as a secondary religious offering, has survived.

  • Firth, Raymond, 1970. Rank and Religion in Tikopia. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Lichtenberk, Frantisek, 1998. Did speakers of Proto Oceanic chew betel? Journal of the Polynesian Society, 107:335-63.
Raymond Firth

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