(Kampo, Sapo, Vacina do sapo, Medicina da floresta, Frog medicine)
Kambo 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 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’.
International awareness of kambo continues to grow, having spiked around the mid-2000s. Today, Western-trained applicators hold ceremonies around the world.
One of kambo’s most exciting potential medical applications is the treatment of cancer. Dermaseptin B2 has been shown to inhibit cancer cell (human prostatic adenocarcinoma) growth by more than 90%. This peptide penetrates cells and works by necrosis (active destruction) and not apoptosis (normal or programmed cell death).
Dermaseptins, including adenoregulin, are powerful antibiotics. Found to be rapidly and irreversibly effective against a range of parasitic microorganisms, they’re also entirely non-toxic to mammalian cells. Combined with their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, peptides in kambo are especially promising for conditions like Cryptococcal meningitis in patients with late-stage HIV. Among the pathogens killed by dermaseptin B2 are the filamentous fungi that opportunistically infect AIDS patients. With the emergence and spread of highly resistant pathogenic bacteria, novel antibiotics such as these are becoming critical.
Since adenoregulin affects the binding of agonists to adenosine receptors, instrumental in the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, it may be useful in the development of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and strokes. Anecdotal evidence supports kambo’s use in depression treatment, anxiety, and addiction.
There’s also compelling anecdotal evidence for kambo’s effectiveness in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). According to one sufferer, the secretion completely eliminates CFS symptoms when taken regularly.
The deltorphins and dermorphin present in kambo have analgesic effects comparable to the body’s own pain response of beta-endorphin release. They’re also stronger than morphine without the same level of respiratory depression, tolerance potential, and withdrawal symptoms.
Phyllokinin may be useful in the treatment of hypertension, having been shown to lower blood pressure more effectively than other polypeptides.
Other conditions that may benefit from kambo include chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, vascular problems, hepatitis, diabetes, rheumatism, and arthritis.
Kambo is frequently offered alongside ayahuasca. ibogaine, 5-MEO-DMT, and other plant medicines for holistic treatment. According to practitioners, the secretion “resets” the body, not only by strengthening the immune system but also through distinct psycho-spiritual benefits.
Panema—an Arawak term used by the Ashaninka and others—describes a negative energy that gathers over time. Traditionally visualized as a kind of dense grey cloud or aura, panema is blamed for bad luck, depression, laziness, irritation, and other adverse states. Naturally, clearing this cloud is vital for indigenous groups that depend on hunting and community coherence. For many, kambo serves this purpose.
Outside of traditional contexts, the dissipation of panema is framed in terms of “clearing the pain body,” “realigning the chakras,” or reorganizing personal psychology. The purge itself may be felt as an expulsion of bad thoughts, habits, negative personality traits, or persistent life problems.
A profoundly transformational tool, kambo is known to increase compassion, courage, emotional stability, and personal sovereignty. Some users feel more “real” or “solid” after kambo application—less in their heads and more in their bodies. Frustration, anger, and anxiety also tend to clear. These positive changes may last several days or several months, depending on the application and the person receiving it.
Kambo may also help to overcome a fear of dying. According to one practitioner, terminally ill patients have claimed to see “the other side” during their experience, returning with a newfound serenity about death.