28 • MOUNTAIN HEALTH
KAMBO the Amazonian Frog Poison Ancient remedy for modern health issues By Christina Callicott
y old friend Herbert sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me. His long hair pulled back into a man-bun, he held a butane lighter to a bamboo stick and turned its tip into a glowing ember. I watched him and realized, “This is going to hurt.” He touched the red-hot stick to my shoulder and burnt two holes in the skin over my deltoid muscle. Tsst! Tsst! I managed not to flinch. Singing softly, rhythmically, in a language I couldn’t understand, he scraped two little balls of medicine off a small wooden paddle and delicately placed one on top of each of the burnt spots. The pain from the burn was brief and had subsided, but as the medicine, known as kambo, soaked in to the exposed tissue, it stung. Slowly and steadily, the stinging in my arm transformed into a heat that grew throughout my entire body and rose to my head. I could feel my face flush with blood and my eyes turn puffy. “Sube?” he asked me. Is it climbing? I nodded. “Puedo ver.” He could see in my face that the medicine had taken effect. “Cómo sientes tu estomago? Is your stomach hurting? Do you have cramping?” I nodded. A little. I’d broken the rules and eaten a banana before leaving the town where I was staying, walking a mile, and taking two taxis to arrive at his house by 8 a.m. “When you eat, your body www.TellurideMagazine.com
becomes involved with digesting, and taking things in. With the kambo, your body needs to be eliminating. For this reason, we just do a small dosis today.” Kambo is a substance used as a medicine and hunting aid by the Matses, Yawinawa, and other Amazonian tribes who inhabit the lowland jungles of the border regions between Peru and Brazil. “They use it instead of antibiotics,” Herbert told me. “At the energetic level, it offers protection: It raises your energy, and strengthens it, so that you are not so vulnerable.” Like many Amazonian medicines, kambo is closely related to what anthropologists used to call “hunting magic.” “The men use it when they hunt,” he said, “to improve their aim.” In less traditional terms, kambo is a cocktail of chemicals with numerous and various potential applications. At a basic level, it is thought to strengthen and activate the immune system. People around the world are using it to treat intractable illnesses from Lyme disease to AIDS. Although it’s not psychoactive in the vein of ayahuasca or San Pedro, it can have strong effects on the nervous system, and for that reason is being used to treat mental
and emotional illnesses as well, including alcoholism and depression. In the United States, kambo is legal, and the International Association of Kambo Practitioners lists 64 practitioners who offer treatments in the U.S., out of 200 worldwide. Side effects can include stomach cramps, vomiting, and possible infection of the application site. Aside from its powerful effects on the immune system, perhaps what’s best known about kambo is its source: frogs—specifically the green monkey tree frog, or Phyllomedusa bicolor. When frightened, these frogs excrete a venom through their skin that repels predators. To collect the venom, people capture the frogs (they are quite large, and reportedly very tame), tie them up, and scrape the venom off their skin. The venom is spread onto a small wooden paddle and dried for future use, and the frogs are released back into the forest. When needed, the practitioner dribbles water on the dried substance and scrapes it into little balls that are applied to the skin—or rather, to the lymphatic tissue underlying the top layer of skin, after the removal of that top layer through burning.