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Betel nut chewing

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Betel nut chewing


Betel nut chewing, also called betel quid chewing or areca nut chewing, is a practice in which areca nuts (also called “betel nuts”) are chewed together with slaked lime and betel leaves for their stimulant and narcotic effects, the primary psychoactive compound being arecoline. The practice is widespread in Southeast Asia, Micronesia, Island Melanesia, and South Asia. It is also found among both Han Chinese immigrants and indigenous peoples of Taiwan, Madagascar, and parts of southern China. It was introduced to the Caribbean in colonial times.

The preparation combining the areca nut, slaked lime, and betel (Piper betle) leaves is known as a betel quid (also called paan or pan in South Asia), but the exact composition of the mixture varies geographically. It can sometimes include other substances for flavoring and to freshen the breath, like coconut, dates, sugar, menthol, saffron, cloves, aniseed, cardamom, and many others. The areca nut can be replaced with tobacco or the two chewed together, and the betel leaves can be excluded. In West Papua, the leaf may be replaced with stem and inflorescence of the Piper betle plant. The preparation is not swallowed, but is spat out after chewing. Chewing results in permanent red stains on the teeth after prolonged use. The spit from chewing betel nuts, which also results in red stains, is often regarded as unhygienic and an eyesore in public facilities in certain countries.

The practice of betel nut chewing originates from Southeast Asia where the plant ingredients are native. The oldest evidence of betel nut chewing is found in a burial pit in the Duyong Cave site of the Philippines, an area where areca palms were native, dated to around 4,630±250 BP. Its diffusion is closely tied to the Neolithic expansion of the Austronesian peoples. It was spread to the Indo-Pacific during prehistoric times, reaching Micronesia at 3,500 to 3,000 BP, Near Oceania at 3,400 to 3,000 BP; South India and Sri Lanka by 3,500 BP; Mainland Southeast Asia by 3,000 to 2,500 BP; Northern India by 1500 BP; and Madagascar by 600 BP. From India it spread westwards to Persia and the Mediterranean. It was present in the Lapita culture, based on archaeological remains dated from 3,600 to 2,500 BP, but it was not carried into Polynesia.

Betel nut chewing is addictive and has been linked with adverse health effects, mainly oral and esophageal cancers, which occur both with and without tobacco in the mixture.Attempts by the World Health Organization to control betel nut chewing remain problematic, as the custom is deeply rooted in many cultures, including possessing religious connotations in some parts of Southeast Asia and India. Despite being associated with adverse health outcomes, this practice is not included in the list of risk factors examined by the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors (GBD). It is estimated that around 600 million people worldwide regularly use this drug preparation.


Areca catechu illustrated by Francisco Manuel Blanco in Flora de Filipinas (1880–1883). It is originally native to the Philippines
Based on archaeological, linguistic, and botanical evidence, betel chewing is most strongly associated with the Austronesian peoples. Chewing betel requires the combination of areca nut (Areca catechu) and betel leaf (Piper betle). Both plants are native from the region between Island Southeast Asia to Australasia. A. catechu is believed to be originally native to the Philippines, where it has the greatest morphological diversity as well as the most closely related endemic species. The origin of the domestication of Piper betle, however, is unknown, although it is also native to the Philippines, the Lesser Sunda Islands, and Indochina. It is also unknown when or why the two plant products were combined, as areca nut alone can be chewed as a stimulant. In eastern Indonesia, leaves from other Piper species are sometimes used in place of betel leaves.

The oldest unequivocal evidence of betel chewing is from the Philippines. Specifically that of several individuals found in a burial pit in the Duyong Cave site of Palawan island dated to around 4,630±250 BP. The dentition of the skeletons is stained, typical of betel chewers. The grave also includes Anadara shells used as containers of lime, one of which still contained lime. Burial sites in Bohol dated to the first millennium CE also show the distinctive reddish stains characteristic of betel chewing. Based on linguistic evidence of how the reconstructed Proto-Austronesian term *buaq originally meaning “fruit” came to refer to “areca nut” in Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, it is believed that betel chewing originally developed somewhere within the Philippines shortly after the beginning of the Austronesian expansion (~5,000 BP). From the Philippines, it spread back to Taiwan, as well as onwards to the rest of Austronesia.

There are very old claims of betel chewing dating to at least 13,000 BP at the Kuk Swamp site in New Guinea, based on probable Areca sp. recovered. However, it is now known that these might have been due to modern contamination of sample materials. Similar claims have also been made at other older sites with Areca sp. remains, but none can be conclusively identified as A. catechu and their association with betel peppers is tenuous or nonexistent.


It reached Micronesia at around 3,500 to 3,000 BP with the Austronesian voyagers, based on both linguistic and archaeological evidence. It was also previously present in the Lapita culture, based on archaeological remains from Mussau dated to around 3,600 to 2,500 BP. But it did not reach Polynesia further east. It is believed that it stopped in the Solomon Islands due to the replacement of betel chewing with the tradition of kava drinking prepared from the related Piper methysticum. It was also diffused into East Africa via the Austronesian settlement of Madagascar and the Comoros by around the 7th century.

The practice also diffused to the cultures the Austronesians had historical contact with. It reached the Dong Son culture via the Austronesian Sa Huỳnh culture of Vietnam at around 3,000 to 2,500 BP through trade contacts with Borneo. It is from this period that skeletons with characteristic red-stained teeth start to appear in Mainland Southeast Asia. It is assumed that it reached South China and Hainan at around the same time, though no archaeological evidence for this can be found as of yet. In Cambodia, the earliest evidence of betel nut chewing is from around 2,400 to 2,200 BP. It also spread to Thailand at 1,500 BP, based on archaeobotanical evidence.

In the Indian subcontinent, betel chewing was introduced through early contact of Austronesian traders from Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula with the Dravidian-speakers of Sri Lanka and southern India at around 3,500 BP. This also coincides with the introduction of Southeast Asian plants like Santalum album and Cocos nucifera, as well as the adoption of the Austronesian outrigger ship and crab-claw sail technologies by Dravidian-speakers. Unequivocal literary references to betel only start appearing after the Vedic period, in works like Dipavaṃsa (c. 3rd century CE) and Mahāvaṃsa (c. 5th century). Betel chewing only reached northern India and Kashmir after 500 CE through trade with Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples in the Bay of Bengal. From there it followed the Silk Road to Persia and into the Mediterranean.

Chinese records, specifically Linyi Ji by Dongfang Shuo associate the growing of areca palms with the first settlers of the Austronesian Champa polities in southern Vietnam at around 2,100 to 1,900 BP. This association is echoed in Nanfang Cao Mu Zhuang by Ji Han (c. 304 CE) who also describes its importance in Champa culture, specifically in the way Cham hosts traditionally offer it to guests. Betel chewing entered China through trade with Champa, borrowing the Proto-Malayo-Chamic name *pinaŋ resulting in Chinese bin lang for “areca nut”, with the meaning of “honored guest”, reflecting Chamic traditions. The same for the alternate term bin men yao jian, literally meaning “guest medicinal sweetmeat”.




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