Kambo, also known as frog medicine, is the venomous secretion of Phyllomedusa bicolor (the giant leaf or monkey frog), a bright green tree frog native to the Amazon basin. It can be found in the rainforest regions of northern Brazil, eastern Peru, southeastern Colombia, and parts of Venezuela, Bolivia, and the Guianas. In many regions outside Brazil, both the frog and its secretion are known as sapo (or ‘toad’).
Giant monkey frogs have a distinctive “song” that can be followed to collect them at night. Captive specimens are tied by the legs and harmlessly stressed to induce the secretion: a waxy substance scraped onto wooden splinters from the back and legs of the frog. Once dried, kambo can be stored for upwards of a year without losing its potency. For use, it’s mixed with saliva or water and directly applied to specially made skin burns.
Kambo has a range of traditional and potential therapeutic applications, both medical and psycho-spiritual. Commonly described as an ‘ordeal medicine’, the secretion is known for its powerful emetic or purgative effects. Despite its initial unpleasantness, kambo is widely sought out to revitalize body and mind.
Kambo is supposedly named for the legendary pajé (or medicine man) Kampu. This ancestral shaman is said to have learned about the medicine from a forest spirit, having exhausted all other means to heal his sickly tribe. According to the Kaxinawá, the spirit of Kampu lives on in the giant monkey frog, continuing to heal any who seek it.
Whatever the mythical origin, kambo medicine has long been used by indigenous Pano-speaking groups in the Amazon, including the Katukina, Asháninka, Yaminawá, and Matsés (or Mayoruna). It may also have been used by the classical Maya, whose art depicted tree frogs next to mushrooms. Traditional uses include eliminating toxins, increasing strength and stamina, monitoring pregnancy (or inducing abortion), and dispersing negative energy, or panema. In the rainforest, kambo is used as a hunting aid, reducing the need for food and water and minimizing the human scent. Fortified by the “vaccine,” hunters are also thought to emit a strange green light that draws their prey near.
The first Westerner to witness kambo use in the Amazon was the French missionary Constantin Tastevin, who stayed with the Kaxinawá in 1925. According to his informants, the ritual of self-envenomation originated with the neighboring Yaminawá.
Kambo was rediscovered in the 1980s by journalist Peter Gorman and anthropologist Katharine Milton —both of whom spent time living with the Matsés/Mayoruna of northeastern Peru/southwestern Brazil. They each supplied kambo samples to the biochemists John Daly and Vittorio Erspamer, who analyzed the secretion’s peptide content and saw great medical potential. Pharmaceutical companies have made efforts to synthesize and patent kambo peptides, but have largely struggled to develop medications.
Until 1994, kambo was rarely applied to non-Indians. It was first offered as a therapy by Francisco Gomes, a half-Katukina caboclo living in São Paulo. From around 1999, he was joined by Santo Daime practitioner and acupuncturist Sonia Maria Valença Menezes and other non-Indian kambo applicators, including holistic therapists, doctors, and members of the União do Vegetal religion.
In 2004, the Brazilian government prohibited all advertising of kambo’s medical or therapeutic benefits, effectively shutting down the new urban applicators. In part, this was a legal response to the Katukina’s demand to protect their ‘intellectual property’.
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