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.
A Kaxinawá legend tells that the Indians of the tribe were very ill and their medicine man (Pajé in Brazil) had done everything that was possible to cure them. All medicinal herbs known were used, but none helped. Under the effect of sacred plant medicines, he entered the forest and whilst there received a visit from the Grandmother. She brought in her hands a frog, from which she took a white secretion, and taught the Pajé how to apply it. Returning to the tribe and following the guidelines that he had received the Pajé was able to cure his brothers. From then on he was known as Pajé Kampu. After his death, his spirit lived on in the frog where it continued its mission to protect the health of those who defend the forest. The Indians continue to use its secretion to stay active and healthy. The secretion became known as Kambo but in some tribes it is called Sapo, Kampu or Vacina da Floresta. Its usage spread and it is still used widely amongst indigenous people in the Amazon to this day although the rituals vary from tribe to tribe.
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’.