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The Abandoned Narcotic: Kava and Cultural Instability in Melanesia.
by Ron Brunton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Hardcover. 216 pp. $49.95. ISBN 0-521-37375-1. Available from ABC Books Item #B134.

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is becoming an increasingly popular herb in the U.S,. where it enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a relatively safe and natural sedative and sleep aid. Kava has been used for centuries as a ritual sedative in the numerous islands of the South Pacific, particularly Fiji. This book is the result of a Ph.D. dissertation dealing with the question of whether kava ingestion in numerous island cultures was subsequently replaced by betel chewing -- the practice of chewing the nuts of betel (Areca catechu), a natural stimulant which has the unpleasant side effect of staining the chewer's teeth. The author spends extensive space in discussing various geographical distribution of kava dealing with the question as to which areas kava is native and to which areas it may have been introduced. Also, extensive explanations are given for various types of social orders on different islands and the possibilities that cultural instability in certain areas partially influenced the decline in kava chewing or was it the reverse? The author's main thrust is that previously, before European contact in the 1600s, the ingestion of kava was much more widely distributed throughout areas of the South Pacific among people speaking Oceanic languages.

This book is primarily a sociological/historical/anthropological inquiry and will be of interest to only a few botanists, ethnobotanists, and other researchers who have sufficient interest in kava and/or Oceanic societies to delve into what might be considered an arcane subject. Nevertheless, as the popularity of kava in the U.S. as a dietary supplement continues to grow, more than a few people may find this information of interest.

One final point: It is unfortunate that the book is entitled The Abandoned Narcotic. The term narcotic is being used literally here to denote kava's sedative, sleep-inducing activity. It does not build dependence or cause withdrawal symptoms after prolonged use like the so-called narcotic drugs. Any association of kava to illicit narcotics is inappropriate and erroneous. Kava's long history of safe use provides a strong basis for its responsible contemporary herbal use.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Mark Blumenthal