Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Explore / Online Tours
Power and Taboo: sacred objects from the Pacific
Kou wood bowl
This bowl would have been used for preparing and serving the infusion, kava, known by the Hawaiians as 'awa, an important beverage for high-ranking people. It is made from the root of a shrub, the pepper plant Piper methysticum and acts as a mild sedative, relaxing both the body and mind.
The bowl would have been hollowed out using a chisel or an adze and soaked in the sea for a week to remove the bitter taste of the wood. It would then have been filled with food at intervals until it was thought that the bitterness had completely gone. Finally it was smoothed with pumice and polished with green bamboo leaves and candlenut oil. The eyes are pearl shell and the teeth are cut boar's tusks or bone.
This is probably the bowl presented to Captain Charles Clerke, who commanded HMS Discovery on Cook's third voyage (1776-80). A chief of Kauai visited his ship on 23 January 1778 and Cook described in his journal the gift to Clerke '... of a large kava bowl, that was supported by two car[v]ed men...'.
Kava continues to be used in many countries in the South Pacific.