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Kava (Piper methysticum Forst. f.) : The Polynesian dispersal of an Oceanian plant

Lebot V.. 1991. In : by Cox, Paul Alan, and Banack, Sandra Anne (eds.). Islands, plants, and Polynesians: An introduction to Polynesian ethnobotany. Portland : Dioscorides Press, p. 169-201.

Starting with their very first observations, scientists have tried to understand how indigenous Polynesian populations found the key to "artificial paradises" as the plant species usually cultivated as recreational drugs were not present in the Pacific (i.e., Cannabis indica, Erythroxylon coca, Datura spp., Papaver somniferum). However, early European explorers observed the use of a species unknown to them: kava (Piper methysticum Forst. f., Piperaceae) (see Fig. 1). Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians alike grind the fresh or dry roots of this shrub to prepare their traditional beverage. In terms of the cultural role it performs, kava is to a large part of the Pacific what wine is t southern Europe. Kava has always played a special part in the history of Pacific societies and is today enjoying a resurgence of popularity with the Oceanic peoples, who are anxious to assert their cultural identity. By pharmacological standards, kava is not classified as a drug, as its consumption never leads to addiction or dependency. It has psychoactive properties but is neither an hallucinogenic nor a stupefacient. Experimental studies have shown that P. methysticum contains active ingredients called kavalactones, with diuretic, soporific, anticonvulsant, spasmolytic, local anesthetic, and antimycotic properties. Kava has been classified as a narcotic and a hypnotic (Schultes and Hofmann 1979), and this helps to understand the atmosphere of sociability felt when drinking it.
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