Inside Look at a Traditional Kambô Ritual

Discover the traditional use and growing popularity of kambô, the powerful frog secretion with potential healing properties, while considering the safety concerns and need for further research.

Overview: Kambô, the secretion of the Phyllomedusa bicolor frog, has traditionally been used by indigenous hunting tribes in the Amazon as a stimulant and resilience-booster. It is believed to have healing properties and is considered a "medicine of the soul" by some indigenous tribes. In recent years, kambô has gained popularity as a cleansing ritual and treatment for psychological and physical conditions outside of the Amazon. However, safety concerns have arisen, as there have been reported deaths associated with its use. The origins of the kambô ritual are debated, but it is deeply rooted in indigenous Amazonian culture. The traditional kambô ritual involves applying the secretion to small burns on the skin, inducing physical effects and potential purging. While kambô shows therapeutic potential, clinical studies are needed to confirm its efficacy and ensure safety. Consulting a healthcare professional is important before using kambô or any medication without clinical evidence.

Kambô: A Powerful Stimulant and Hunting Aid in the Amazon

Traditionally, the indigenous hunting tribes of the southwest Amazon, including the Katukina, Kaxinawá, Yawanahua, Ashaninkas, and the Matsés/Mayoruna, have used kambô, the dried skin secretion of the arboreal frog Phyllomedusa bicolor, as a powerful stimulant.

This secretion is believed to enhance hunting skills and reduce the need for food and water during hunting trips. The bioactive peptides present in kambô, which are short chains of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that have specific biological effects in the body, along with its painkilling properties, are thought to contribute to its ability to boost resilience. 

Among some indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, kambô is thought of as a “medicine of the soul”, with the ritual’s “Indian origins” being of particular importance among indigenous societies. According to experienced shamans and practitioners who perform the ritual, kambô operates on the level of the soul to facilitate healing and transformation. 

Over the past decade, the use of kambô as a cleansing ritual and healing agent for psychological and physical conditions has spread from the Amazon rainforest and reached unexpected levels of popularity in the US, Europe, and Australia.

Although it seems to have some therapeutic potential, the increasing popularity of kambô is controversial due to growing concerns surrounding the ritual’s safety.

To date, several kambô-related deaths have been reported in the literature, and with just limited research on its effects, users are urged to exercise great caution when experimenting with kambô and to refrain from using it on their own

The Origins of the Kambô Ritual 

The origins of the kambô ritual reportedly begin with a Kaxinawá legend. According to the legend, a Kaxinawá shaman named Kampu had tried to cure fellow, gravely ill members of his tribe. No matter what he tried, however, and no matter what plant medicines Kampu used, he was unsuccessful. 

That was until the Kampu went exploring the forest under the influence of ayahuasca, where he was reportedly visited by the spirit of this sacred visionary brew. The spirit of ayahuasca placed a Phyllomedusa bicolor in Kampu’s hands and showed him how to use its skin secretion for healing. From then on, Kampu was known as Pajé Kampu (medicine man Kampu). 

When Kampu returned to the tribe and followed the instructions he had received, he was able to cure his felllow tribe members. According to the legend, the Kampu’s spirit continues to live on in Phyllomedusa bicolor, carrying on his legacy of protecting and healing those who defend the Amazon. 

The origin of this practice can certainly be traced back to the indigenous peoples of the southwest Amazon. However, there is ongoing debate about whether it specifically originated among the Kaxinawá tribe. Scholars and practitioners, such as Sonia Maria Valença Menezes, who is associated with the Santo Daime tradition, argue that the true custodians of kambô are the Katukina. The Katukina are said to have a deep connection with the medicine, using it more extensively than any other ethnic group and considering it an integral part of their identity. 

The widespread dissemination of kambô is often attributed to Francisco Gomes, a rubber tapper who resided near the Katukina community along the River Liberdade in the state of Acre during the 1960s. Gomes is believed to have played a crucial role in introducing kambô to various alternative therapy clinics, as well as the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime ayahuasca religions in Brazil.

The Rise of Kambô in The West

According to Brazilian anthropologists, Bia Labate and Edilene Coffaci de Limaand, the first outsider to document ethnographic observations of kambô use in the Amazon was the French priest, Constantin Tastevin, who stayed with the Kaxinawá of Brazil in 1925. Tastevin had the following to say about the kambô ritual: 

“When an Indian becomes ill, he becomes thin, pale, and swollen; when he is unlucky in hunting, it is because he has in his body a bad principle which must be expelled. At dawn, before dawn, while still fasting, for the sick and unlucky hunter, small scars are produced on the arm or belly with the tip of a burning stick, then they are vaccinated with the “milk” of frog, as they say. Soon violent nausea and diarrhea start; the bad principle leaves its body by all the exits. As a result, the patient returns from being big and fat and recovers its colors, and finds more hunting than he can bring back. No animal escapes from his sharp sight, his ear perceives the smallest noises, and his weapon does not miss its mark.”

The kambô story was rediscovered in the 1980s by American investigative journalist, Peter Gorman. Having spent some time living with the Matsés on the border of Peru and Brazil, gorman brought the medicine to public attention by publishing his observations in an OMNI magazine article titled, Making Magic

The article by Gorman had a fascinating impact on Italian chemist Vittorio Erspamer, renowned for his discovery of enteramine (serotonin). Intrigued by Gorman's findings, Erspamer embarked on an extensive research journey into the bioactive peptides present in the kambô secretion. With Gorman providing the samples, this collaboration sparked a profound and enduring friendship that would span several decades.

The Traditional Kambô Ritual 

Unlike ayahuasca, there is no specific diet to which participants are expected to adhere in the lead-up to kambô treatment.

In general, there is broad diversity concerning the guidelines for kambô administration, however, there are a few recommendations and requirements that are consistent across ceremonies. 

Preparing for a Traditional Kambô Ritual 

Users are often advised to take good care of themselves in the days and weeks leading up to the kambô ceremony. Nourishing oneself with nutrient-dense, healthy food and staying sufficiently hydrated are required to ensure optimal physical health and strength for what is typically a grueling physical experience.  

Users are also encouraged to think about what is drawing them to use kambô, why they have taken the decision to sit with this medicine, and what they intend to get out of the experience. Mindfulness practices like journaling and meditation are useful ways to think about intentions and engender a sense of clarity before the ceremony.

It is strongly recommended to avoid alcohol and all other recreational drugs for 24 hours before the ceremony and to fast for approximately 10 hours beforehand.

It is important not to consume too much water before getting to the ceremony space, as users are typically required by the shamanic practitioner to drink around 2 liters of water directly before the kambô is applied. Overconsuming water before the ceremony can lead to hyponatremia — a potentially life-threatening condition caused by dangerously low blood sodium levels. 

The Katukina and Caboclos of Brazil require that users eat no solids or salt for at least 12 hours in preparation for kambô. The Katukina do however ingest around 3 to 5 liters of a fermented drink called corn caiçuma throughout the night before their kambô experience. 

What to Expect at a Traditional Kambô Ritual

Although it can be quite a challenge to find Phyllomedusa bicolor as they get camouflaged by plant leaves), usually, they are eventually spotted singing near watercourses after heavy rain. Indigenous tribes generally “harvest” the frog at dawn, singing traditional songs as they search.

Once found, the giant tree frog is tied by its feet, in the shape of an “X” and spat on several times to stimulate its skin to produce the poisonous secretion, which is its defense mechanism. Once the foamy secretion is released, it is scraped off the frog’s back and legs.

Once the secretion has been collected, the frog is released back into the forest. There is a belief among indigenous communities that harming Phyllomedusa bicolor could offend the spirit of shaman Kampu, resulting in bad luck.

Several superficial burns called “gates” are then quickly and gently made in the user’s arm (men) or leg (women) using a piece of hot ember from the end of a titica vine. This is done to expose the lymph that lies beneath — a colorless fluid that circulates throughout the lymphatic system that plays an essential role in the body's immune system, helping to defend against infections, diseases, and other harmful substances. 

The kambô resin is then diluted in water to prevent crystallization, and divided into small pea-size dots called “points” that are applied to the gates using a wooden spatula. This way, the kambô resin rapidly enters the bloodstream by way of the lymphatic vessels.

The number of gates through which kambô is introduced varies considerably between users depending on the person's size, experience, and reasoning for use, as well as the judgment of the shaman. Those receiving kambô for the first time typically receive a basic treatment of three to nine gates. 

To help rule out any serious adverse reactions to the medicine, kambô treatments always begin with an initial test point — a single dot of kambô applied to gauge the person’s reaction before a full dose is administered.

Interestingly, members of the Katukina can receive more than a hundred points in the same application. Their tolerance is believed to be due to their way of life and intimate relationship with nature. According to experienced kambô shamans, such extremely high doses are not suitable for people from urban areas or people from the West.

During group ceremonies, the application of kambô is done individually, ensuring that each participant receives ample one-on-one attention from the shaman. Accompanied by dedicated assistants, the shaman typically guides individuals throughout the powerful experience induced by the secretion.

The Effects of Kambô

Unlike psychedelics which interact with a specific serotonin receptor to produce their mind-altering effects, kambô produces its intense effects via the immune system. According to most users, the subjective effects of kambô are not as compelling as other more visionary plant medicines such as ayahuasca.

However, kambô is extremely powerful and can have intense physical effects on the body. Because it enters the lymphatic system and can cross the blood-brain barrier, kambô tends to come on quite quickly. The onset is typically felt within five minutes.

Subjective effects of kambô may include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • Flushing
  • Swelling in the face, hands, and throat
  • Temperature fluctuations
  • A pounding sensation in the head
  • Itching 
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea/cramping in the stomach 
  • Vomiting 
  • Shaking 

The initial immune response to kambô typically lasts just five minutes. The entire process, however, usually takes twenty to thirty minutes for most users. The kambô is then removed and users are free to lay down and rest. 

In the context of kambô, purging can occur as a common physiological response to the administration of the substance. Purging refers to process of expelling or eliminating substances , typically water and bile, from the body, often through vomiting or diarrhea.

Purging may also include profound emotional responses. There is a belief among indigenous tribes that kambô addresses not only physical illnesses but also emotional disturbances that require untangling and release. 

Traditionally, this is one of the main purposes of kambô. Indigenous communities throughout Amazonia speak of a condition called “panema,” a sort of sadness of the soul caused by negative energy. Panema has been defined by Sonia Maria Valença Menezes as an “Indian depression” that compromises one’s ability to hunt.

Understanding Kambô: Perspectives, Potential, and Safety Considerations

Different perspectives exist regarding kambô, ranging from viewing it as a universal cure-all to considering it as a placebo effect driven by belief. However, it is undeniable that for some individuals, kambô can have a profound impact when used with respect and responsibility.

Practitioners of kambô, whether urban, Amazonian, or indigenous, believe that this medicine can help address various negative conditions, encompassing physical, psychological, and emotional aspects. According to them, kambô's healing properties stem from its ability to alleviate an imbalanced and energy-draining state known as “panema.” 

Although clinical studies have yet to provide definitive evidence supporting the therapeutic efficacy of kambô, the presence of numerous bioactive peptides suggests its potential as a treatment for conditions such as depression, cancer, chronic pain, blood circulation issues, allergies, and addiction.

However, it is important to note that using a medication without clinical testing can be potentially harmful, especially if there are interactions with other medications or underlying health conditions. Consulting with a healthcare professional before using any medication, particularly in the absence of clinical evidence, is crucial.

In Western regions, the use of kambô is still relatively new, and further research is necessary to explore its potential medicinal applications. Clinical studies are needed to better understand the therapeutic potential and safety profile of kambô, considering the reported adverse events and deaths associated with its use.

For indigenous Amazonian people, who possess extensive experience with this traditional medicine, kambô remains connected to the spirit of Pajé Kampu, carrying out his mission of protecting the forest and its defenders.

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