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Chapter 13

Betel, Kava, and Toddy


In 1914, the British anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers set the scene for future controversy on this topic with the publication of his ambitiously conceived book The History of Melanesian Society. In volume 2 of this work he proposed three groups of migrants into Island Melanesia named by him in order of arrival as dual people, kava people, and betel people of whom the first is characterised as matrilineal and all three as Austronesian. But the book was written at a time when very little was known about mainland New Guinea so there is no mention at all of Papuans who may have been involved, and the book is additionally highly flawed with its attribution of every trait to yet another migration of one or other of his primary groups , probably on the basis of diffusionist theory, though this is nowhere indicated except by constant talk of "influences" and cultural strata. Shorn of these unwelcome encumbrances, however, Rivers's basic concept remains sound. The problem he had set himself was how to explain apparently different distributions of the two narcotic plants, kava and betel. In his own words, though he went on immediately to discuss exceptions:

There is nothing more striking in the distribution of objects throughout Melanesia than the respective ranges of the two substances, kava and betel. Kava is found in the southern and eastern islands of Melanesia, as well as in Polynesia, while betel is used in the north-western part of Melanesia (Rivers 1914 (2):243).



Reminiscent of London's problem with chewing gum, a common sight in towns where betel is used is pools of red expectorant on the pavements. Betel is a product of the betel-nut palm, Areca catechu, which provides a nut that is chewed as a stimulant together with a pepper (Piper betel) and crushed lime (Bellwood 1978a:139). Chewing induces salivation, and the presence of lime turns the chewed mass bright red (Ross 2008:392).

Some people swallow all but the initial burst of saliva, whilst others spit out the red masticate. Initially, chewing leads to a very short-lived dizziness, followed by a sense of renewed wakefulness (Ross 2008:loc.cit.).



Betel is grown from India, through Southeast Asia, to as far east as western Micro­nesia and the Santa Cruz Islands (Bellwood 1978a:139). It is common in western Micronesia: the Palaus, the western Carolinas, and some islands in the Marianas, (Barrau 1961:66), but is altogether absent in Polynesia and areas of Island Melanesia from Vanuatu southwards. Its primary area of incidence is New Guinea and the Solomons.

Christian contrasts use of betel in the Philippines and Western Micronesia with preference for kava in Pohnpei:

The habit of Betel-nut chewing practised so universally in the Philippines, the Mariannes, the Pelews and in Yap, somehow has not taken root firmly amongst the Ponapeans, who appear to find the stimulus of Kava-drinking sufficient for their needs (Christian 1899:334).

For Melanesia, Malcolm Ross cites a lengthy cognate set of POc *buaq 'betelnut, areca nut, palm, Areca catechu' in Adm, NNG, PT, MM, TM, SES, and SV (two only terms from this area), together with another set for the betel pepper vine POc *[pu-lpulu 'betel pepper, Piper belle' for Adm, NNG, MM and SES (Ross 2008:393-5). This provides evidence of betel in present-day Austronesian-speaking areas of northern Melanesia, but not necessarily in POc times as the terms are not exclusive to betel but have a huge range of other meanings. Self-evidently also, as Ross's lexicon project is concerned only with speakers of Austronesian languages, it is necessary to look elsewhere for any indication of betel among Papuans. This can be found, as it happens, by turning once again to musical evidence.

Just as a smoker may carry a pack of cigarettes or a box of matches, an essential accoutrement for betel users is a portable container for the lime used with the plant. At a sing-sing, if the dancer is not carrying a kundu hand-drum his lime pot may be pressed into service as a percussion instrument, either by tapping it or by rubbing it across the opening with the associated licking stick.

The only West Papua reports for lime pots as a musical instrument are from  Kamoro and Marind at opposite ends of the south coast. There is a small concentration in the Sepik, another on the Highlands/Morobe border, and more extending into the Central province and Milne Bay, with one only in the Solomon Islands, and none at all reported for the Bismarck Archipelago, though this could result from lack of information rather than true absence. There is nevertheless a gradient of incidence along the entire length of New Guinea, with Papuan-speaking areas dominating in the west, and Austronesian-speaking ones more significant in the coastal areas of the east. In detail: 


Lime pots as musical instrument


In order of map reference

AN = Austronesian
NAN = Non-Austronesian



Kamoro                      029     NAN
Marind                       042     NAN



Tumleo                       106     AN
Ulau-suain                 108     AN
Maprik                       114     NAN
Iatmul                         138     NAN
Bahinemo                  139     NAN
Kaningara                  140     NAN



Agarabi                      233     NAN
Binumarien               234     NAN
Gadsup                       235     NAN
Tairora                       236     NAN



Adzera                       253     AN
Waffa                         262     NAN



Mekeo                        339     AN
Humene                     355     NAN
Sinagoro                    358     AN
Keakalo                     361    AN
Keagolo                     362     Uncertain



Mailu                          367     NAN
Iduna                          381     AN
Bwaidoka                  382     AN
Duau                           385     AN



Ulawa                                     AN


The direction of introduction cannot be judged from the above information alone, but the extent of Papuan involvement makes it unlikely to have originated either from AN speakers or to have moved from east to west. In view both of this and the absence of either betel or a term for it south of Vanuatu, it may be that reconstruction to POc is wrong, and this reconstruction can more appropriately be assigned to the post-Lapita subgroup of  PWOc, and the plant would have been a borrowing in the first instance from Papuans. 



Unlike betel, which is prepared and used by individuals who carry the dry ingredients with them, kava is a drink, prepared and consumed in social context.

The kava plant, Piper methysticum, is a many branching plant with rounded green leaves. The plant is grown, usually near houses, exclusively from cuttings, and a narcotic is made from it in parts of Remote Oceania. Traditionally kava is consumed as a drink. The root is first reduced to small fragments by chewing, grinding or pounding. The fragments are deposited in a bowl, mixed with water and strained through the cloth-like fibre of a coconut spathe to give a cloudy grey liquid. In Fiji, Tonga and Samoa the liquid is made from mature roots, is of low strength and plays a part in various ceremonies. In Vanuatu it is made from the roots of green plants and often has a much greater narcotic effect. Initially it causes the blood vessels in the lips and tongue to contract with a certain numbing effect. The drinker then senses some degree of euphoria, followed by a sense of calm well-being and clear thinking and a general relaxation of the muscles (Ross 2008:395-6).

When kava first came to the attention of Europeans in the journals of eighteenth century navigators such as Captains Cook and Bligh, the most probable reaction would have been horror and disgust because of the then common method of preparing the drink from collected saliva resulting from group chewing rather than pounding of the root, and because of the consequences of excessive use which included a skin condition. Thus, as reported by Bligh for Tahiti: "It is drank four or five times a day, and the operation of making it, is as filthy as the Use of it is punicious." (Bligh 1789:1, 382 cited by Oliver 1974:256 ). In modern Polynesia, kava use is now restricted to Samoa and Tonga, and more recently Hawaii (Allaby 2007:186 ), where preparation does not involve chewing.



Like many Oceanic food plants, the kava plant is sterile and consequently dependent on humans for propagation, making it a useful indicator for migration studies.



Pollex has the following full range of cognates for Polynesia, reconstructed to  PPn *kawa A plant sp. (Piper methysticum) and drink made from it


The list includes a term from NZ Maori who did not have the narcotic kava plant, but applied the term to the similar 'kawa (Kawa): A shrub (macropiper excelsum)'. Maori did, however, have a memory of kava, demonstrated by the text of an ancient incantation which begins with the otherwise meaningless phrase 'Beat the kawa, water the kawa' (Biggs 1964:46).



In Micronesia, kava appears to be limited to the Caroline Islands, and is known  there by the different name, sakau. This word, however, is not unique to kava but, as Christian makes clear, is applied both in the Carolines and elsewhere in Micronesia to coconut toddy and to strong drink of all kinds:

Ponapean chakau, choko, (1) the kava, (2) strong drink in general, chika-lewi, taka-rui, coco-nut toddy; Kusaie seka, (1) the kava, (2) strong drink of all sorts, saka, coco-nut toddy; Mortlocks sakau, soko (id.); Mokil and Pengelap sakau, coco-nut toddy, saka-maimai, (1) the sweet unfermented toddy, (2) molasses; Ngatik thakau, thakarui, strong drink, toddy; Gilbert Islands taka-maimai, sweet toddy, taka-ruoruo, sour, fermented toddy; Marshall Islands saka-maimai, sweet toddy; Malay tûak, tuâk klápa, coco-nut toddy. In Philippines the vinegar prepared from sour toddy is called suka, tuka, suko, tuko. Cf. Japanese sake, saka, rice-spirit, wine, strong drink in general (Christian 1897:139).

Christian continues with an alternative set of terms for toddy used in the central and western Carolines. (considered in the next section under the heading of Toddy). It would appear that the sakau term has overtaken both the original one for coconut toddy and the one for kava, whatever that may have been. Christian's suggestion that sakau was a loan word from Japanese seems unlikely at first sight but merits serious consideration. Christian claims the presence of numerous such loan words in Micronesia which he attributes to early Japanese trading voyages (Christian 1897:123-4). If any such voyages occurred, it would seem not improbable they would come equipped with saki as a trade item.  



Malcolm Ross notes that besides presence in Remote Oceania, kava is also consumed in scattered areas of New Guinea and the Bismarcks where introduction is believed to have been recent, and reconstruction of a term for it to Proto Oceanic is not to be expected. The term is, in fact, present, but only in the broad, general sense of "potent root" as deduced in a paper of this name by Lynch (2002). In this paper, Lynch has effectively solved the problem of the origins of kava. In his own words:

Botanical evidence suggests that kava, Piper methysticum, may have first been domesticated in northern Vanuatu, and this implies that no Proto-Oceanic term can be reconstructed with this meaning. The dissimilarities between widespread terms for 'kava' like maloku in northern Vanuatu, yaqona in Fiji, and kava in Polynesia have complicated the issue, making it unclear what the earliest reconstruction might be. I show in this paper, however, that the term kava apparently derives from a Proto-Oceanic term *kawaRi, which referred to a root with special psychoactive and/or ritual properties: probably a species of ginger (Zingiber zerumbet), and possibly also to "wild" kava (Piper wichmannii) and to plants used in stupefying fish. This form apparently underwent a semantic and formal change, and was applied to kava when it was first domesticated. Later lexical changes in Vanuatu and Fiji are investigated, and a chronological sequence for the spread of kava--including spread from some Polynesian source to New Guinea--is proposed (Lynch 2002: Abstract).


The Rivers dilemma

The question now to be answered is whether Lynch's contribution to solving the problem of the origin of kava has thrown light on the basic question posed by Rivers so many years ago. To recap: betel is prominent from Vanuatu north-westwards, and kava from Vanuatu south-eastwards, but although kava is also present in the Bismarck Archipelago, mainland New Guinea, and Micronesia, all north of Vanuatu, it is absent in the intermediate area of the Solomons, so how did it get to these northerly areas? It is a problem that has seemed impenetrable but largely, perhaps, because the woods have been obscured by the many trees. In addition to Rivers 1914, Lynch 2002 and Ross 2008, already considered, contributors to the debate have included Brunton 1989, Lebot 1991, Kirch 2000, Geraghty 2004, and Allaby 2007. Lebot calls the Melanesian evidence "puzzling", and an aspect of the problem, which he does not mention in his conclusions, is how to account for kava in Ponape. To judge from the small degree of consensus that can be gleaned from these authors, Samoa must have received kava from Northern Vanuatu, Ponape from Samoa, and New Britain from Ponape, after which it moved into mainland New Guinea. Proposal of this roundabout route becomes necessary because of apparent absence of kava in the Solomons, which lie on the direct route between Vanuatu and the Bismarcks. But it cannot be assumed that kava was never in the Solomons. Lebot has shown that the kava plant, which is dependant on humans for propagation, quickly becomes extinct in an area if kava ceases to be used there, as has happened most recently in the Marquesas Islands and Hawai'i in Eastern Polynesia. In the latter case the practice of kava drinking died out because of missionary intervention, and was doubtless replaced by alcohol. If the Solomon Islands once had kava, it could have become extinct at any time within the past 3000 years, leaving no trace of former use. A likely trigger for abandonment of kava would have been adoption of betel as a preferred intoxicant, as proposed by Rivers, accounting for the current almost mutually exclusive distribution of the two, betel in PNG, Western Micronesia, and the Solomons, and kava predominantly in remaining areas. This also makes explicable the presence of kava in the Solomon Islands Outliers of Tikopia and Anuta, which have been profoundly influenced from the Solomons in other ways as well. Another outcome of this scenario is to remove necessity for kava to have either reached Ponape from Samoa or the other way round. Lebot rules out the latter because the kava plant would not have survived in the atoll environment of most of the Polynesian Outliers, but this would apply equally to introduction from Samoa. The likelihood, then, is that kava reached all areas from an initial base in northern Vanuatu or the Solomons, with Vanuatu as the favoured location because of the presence there of related species of Piper from which the kava cultivar could have been developed. A corollary of this scenario is a route for kava into Samoa and Tonga, not necessarily from Fiji, where the name for it is different, but via Solomon or Vanuatu Outliers, either following an established route or creating one. It may never be known what kava was called in the Solomons before it dropped out of use there. Possibly it was already known as kava, or this term was adopted some time after the kava complex reached the Solomon outliers. Later, after establishment in Tonga it went by retro movement from there into the southern areas of Vanuatu which currently still know it by the kava name. 



Barrau provides essential information as follows:

In Micronesia the sweet sap, or toddy, which runs from the young, broken inflorescence of the palm is an important item of diet. The inflorescence, while still in the spathe, is shaped into a long cylinder by a binding of plaited coconut fibers. The end is cut off daily to allow the sap to drip from the cut sur­face into a coconut shell or bottle suspended from the extremity. The yield is approximately two pints in 24 hours. The fresh toddy, which contains 15 to 16 percent sugar, is diluted with water for a beverage. If allowed to stand, toddy ferments rapidly, and within about 15 hours contains 6 percent alcohol. The yeasts responsible are rich in vitamins of the B group. The use of fermented toddy has been introduced by Europeans into certain Polynesian islands, notably the Marquesas, where it was quite unknown in early times. When concentrated over a low flame, toddy becomes a type of molasses, known as kanwimai in the Gilbert Islands. This is used in a number of dishes (Barrau 1961:38-9).

Comparison of cognatic terms shows toddy to be a predominantly Micronesian drink which has spread from there into Polynesia, but not exclusively at the hands of Europeans as Barrau seems to suggest. Pollex has a set of terms as follows:

ECE     Kaleve. :Fresh juice from coconut spathe (Rby)
GIL      Kareve. :Toddy; juice from coconut spathe; palm wine; sweet
NKO    Galeve. :Sap taken from inflorescence of coconut tree
OJA     `Aleve. :Fermented coconut juice
PUK     Kalewe. :Juice from young Coconut flower shoot (Mta)
SIK       Kaleve. :Sap from coconut tree collected for various uses including molasses (Donner)
TAK     Kareve. :Coconut toddy
TOK     Kaleve. :Sap extracted from bud of coconut tree 

All except the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) are Western Polynesian, including Outliers. Samoa, Tonga and Eastern Polynesia are notably absent, ruling this distribution out as potentially PPn and confirming it as most likely relatively recent.

For Micronesia, in the section on kava (above), in information supplied by Christian, the presence of coconut toddy has already been noted for the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), Marshall Islands, Ponape, Kusaie, Mokil and Pengelap in Micronesia, where toddy is given the same name, sakau and cognates, as used for kava and strong drink generally. Thus far there is no resemblance to the Pollex terms. Christian, however, has more to say:  

Another set of words occur idiomatically in the Central and Western Carolines: Mortlocks ati, Yap atchif, Uluthi kati, Ruk ati, Lamotrek and Ifalik kárri, kásri, Satawal and Pulawat kási, kásri, Uleai kárri, kúrri, Sonsorol gasi, St. Davids gati (Christian 1897:139).

Unequivocal connections between the two areas are Pollex aleve OJA, Galeve NKO, Kaleve ECE, Kaleve SIK, Kaleve TOK, Kalewe PUK, Kareve GIL, Kareve TAK, and Christian's kárri , kási, kásri, kásri, kati, kúrri, from the Carolines. With the remaining Pollex terms added, this establishes a clear line of connections from the Carolines to the Marshalls, Kiribati and Tuvalu,together with a string of Outliers from Nukuoro, to Ontong Java, Takuu and Sikaiana, as well as Tokelau and Pukapuka in Western Polynesia, all connected on account of this quintessential Micronesian beverage.  

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