A Brief Note Regarding Campa Medical Practices

© 1986 by James Q. Jacobs

While serving in the Peace Corps in a remote area of the Peruvian Amazon Basin region, in the village of Puerto Bermudez on the Pichis River, I was affected by an extreme case of dysentery. I was unable to absorb food, to politely describe my condition. When I complained to several Campa Indians that I would have to leave the region to seek a doctor's help they volunteered to cure my affliction. 

I had been treated previously with efficacy by local natives for other problems. I had also observed situations where Campa Indians had been able to treat medical emergencies with herbal remedies. On one occasion one of the workers in our Ministry of Agriculture agency stepped on a very venomous cottonmouth snake in a shallow stream. He was bitten on the edge of his bare foot. As the Ministry of Agriculture agent I was responsible for his well-being and his on-the-job injury. He was christianized and forbidden to use native remedies by local missionaries who operated a pharmacy. We gave him several anti-venom shots and flew him out of the jungle to a hospital. It was a traumatic experience for him. He had never been in a plane, a hospital, or a place where no one spoke Campa. After a week he returned home recovered. 

A few weeks later word arrived in the village that another worker had been bitten. I rushed down river to the worksite with more anti-venom, arriving just after lunch. The injured man had already returned to work. He was not forbidden by missionaries from using native remedies and had taken an anti-venom plant that grew in the immediate work area, the vicinity of the first incident. I was assured that his bite was as serious as the first man's. The Indians, who were clearing land for the La Esperanza Experiment Station, knew exactly where they had seen the needed remedy. The bitten man received immediate treatment and was just fine. I was dumbfounded that the first man, snake bitten on the same parcel of land, had bypassed such an effective herbal solution. 

On another occasion I had a tooth abscess and complained to several companions that I needed to go see a dentist. Their laughter was soon explained as due to the fact that I was sitting next to the flower that could cure my problem. They were surprised that I wouldn't have that knowledge. Some time latter, when I was near a dentist, I had the cavity repaired. 

Due to these experiences I agreed without hesitation to let my Campa friends try to cure my dysentery. They went off into the jungle to find a remedy. Because I was not trained in their medical traditions, I was not allowed to accompany the group or know the identity of the plant they sought. I guess I lacked the Campa equivalent of a Ph. D. in pharmacognostics. Later in the day they returned with a small root. 

I was given the root and instructed on how to prepare and consume it. My Campa friends went off to their nearby cooking hut. As directed I scraped the bark from the root, seeped it in hot water for about ten minutes and then drank the tea. I, of course, expected about as much noticeable affect as from pills doctors prescribe. A short while later my voice changed to a high soprano, much to the entertainment of a surrounding group of visiting friends. Before I could reach a high panic concerning whether or not my new found voice was a permanent change, I noticed a needle-and-pin sensation in my mouth. I concluded that the voice change was due to an anesthetic and would not be permanent. 

The medicine was taking effect. By the time my mouth was completely numb I felt the needle-and-pin sensation in my hands and feet. The sensation progressed up my limbs. When my hands and feet were numb my elbows and knees had the needle-and-pin sensation. I decided it was time to lay down on my sleeping pad. I fell asleep almost immediately. The anesthetizing root was the second time the locals had cured an ailment for me with an anesthetic. My abscessing teeth had been cured by chewing an anesthetic flower. I found the affect from chewing one flower to be sufficiently efficacious to postpone seeking a dentist until convenient, instead of needing to return to "civilization." 

In the morning I awoke in perfect health. I was able to retain food and water without a problem and my gastrointestinal activity returned to normal. The previous day I needed a bathroom after drinking water. Of course there were no real bathrooms within fifty miles, which was probably the cause of my ailment in the first place. Thankfully, a few days previous we had installed the first real toilet in the area. All you had to do to make it function was carry water up from the river to fill the tank. If you wanted running water you 'ran' back instead of walking.

Several weeks later, upon concluding my two years of Peace Corps service, I had a test for intestinal parasites. The result was absolutely no parasites, much to the surprise of my physician. I explained why and was sharply chastised by my Peace Corps doctor for having resorted to a Native American remedy. Two years earlier this same physician had advised us new recruits against eating raw vegetables. 

The aspect of Campa medicine that impressed me the most was their ability to control pregnancy. Only the women healers knew the identity of a tea ingredient or ingredients that effectively prevented pregnancy for seven years. They had a antidote remedy for when they changed their minds. From informant communications, from family size and judging by the ages of mothers at childbearing, it was obvious to me that the Campas indeed had a birth control ability. Campa friends told me of their personal experiences using this birth control. It was not uncommon for people to couple as young teenagers and not have any children for seven years. I was told that it allowed time to be certain that they would remain together before starting a family. 

I tried very hard to learn the identity of the plant or plants employed, but I was unable to do so. I found out that the male Campa healers did not necessarily possess the knowledge. According to what I found out, the older Campa women healers were the only ones who knew. I enlisted a women to help in my pursuit to no avail. This particular knowledge was guarded. 

Common remedies like the anesthetic flower were known by almost everyone in the region, both Campas and other Peruvians. Other knowledge is more circumscribed. Ayahuasca in combination with DMT-bearing plants was commonly used in the area. Specialists prepared this very potent remedy at secluded huts in the jungle far from the village. To me there was no distinction of healers and ordinary people. No one had a "healer" shingle on their thatch hut. I didn't know what a shaman was and neither did any of the Campas, to the best of my knowledge. Everyone knew what medical and herbal knowledge they had so far been taught by the previous generation. The skills they possessed were the result of direct transmission from time immemorial. 

Many years later I was in the UCLA library looking for a book about ethnobotany. It wasn't on the shelf, but a book about the Campas shared the same shelf. I read it. Much to my surprise someone I knew in Puerto Bermudez and had had frequent contact with, whose home I ate in and whose cattle I had vaccinated, was pictured in the Master's thesis and referred to as a shaman. I'm sure he would be as surprised as I was by his anthropological classification.  This external classification does not correspond with my experience of Campa culture.

We would be well advised to take a lesson from the Campa people. Every member of society should learn as much as they can about their own health and how to care for it. Everyone should be as much of a doctor and pharmacist as possible and know as much as possible about any remedies they utilize. 

Count me among those who want to save the rain forests and their medicinal plants from destruction. We should also be concerned about saving the cultures that inhabit the rainforests from extinction. They are bearers of knowledge that is vital to human survival as well as the keepers of plants that can be beneficial to all of humanity. 


2008. An old friend from the jungle mentioning me to a friend in a story led them to web search my identity and led them to this very page. José said on the phone he found me via this page. He did not remember the gastointestinal cure event happened in his home!