The Matsés have 100’s of natural medicine and plant mixtures used for various purposes, here we focus on tobacco snuff and kambo, while explaining their uses.


Nënë is the Matsés word for tobacco and was traditionally used in powdered form most days but now not so frequently. Like other cultural practices, since outside contact in the 1970's, traditional plants and medicines are used less and less.

Nënë has various uses, from supplying energy in the jungle or as a tool to open conversation, tell stories and pass on oral knowledge. In a tobacco snuff form, it was also used for transferring an elder man's energy, courage and marksmanship to a younger man using a tube fashioned from a small species of bamboo.


Daniel is one of many Matsés elders who still produce and use nënë but like many other ancestral practices it is rare for the younger generation to be engaged in nënë tradition.

We documented the whole process with Daniel, first going to his chakra to collect the tobacco leaves which he harvests 4 times a year, giving sufficient time for the plants to replenish.


On route back to the village he collects bark from a species of wild cacao tree (called senad dëbiate in Matsés, cacahuillo in local Spanish; Latin Theobroma subincanum), which will later be burnt, with the ashes added to the tobacco snuff. The ash has no physiological effect alone, but functions to release the alkaloids from the tobacco, making its effects quicker and more intense.


The central veins are removed from the leaves before being placed on a readily made frame above an open fire. The carahullio bark is also added on top to dry alongside the tobacco leaves.


The leaves are now crumbled and mixed by hand with the ashes of the cacauillo bark. Finally the powder is put in a bamboo mortar before being smashed repeatedly with a wooden pestle until the powder is in a fine form. The final step is to sift the snuff to remove any large particles.


Uesnid canite is the Matsés name for the curassow bone which they use to make a pipe and inhale the nënë. The pipe is made by joining two leg bones of the curassow bird together at a 45 degree angle. Chambira fibre is used to tightly tie the bones together before beeswax is added on top for a strong moulded hold and seal.

Jorge Shabac, chief of Buen Peru village and master 'uesnid canite' maker.

'The nënë has to be taken up both nostrils in order to keep a balance.'

Jorge Shabac, Matsés chief.


‘Acaté' is the name of the NGO (Acaté Amazon Conservation) who we and the Matsés work with but the organization was named for the word in the Matsés language for a large and poisonous tree frog found throughout the northern Amazon. The acate frog (Latin name: Phyllomedusa bicolor) plays a key role in Matsés culture, through hunting ceremonies and also its history in Matsés mythology, showing how they learnt to hunt, below is an elder’s account of the legend.

'Before the rubber boom, the Matsés made peaceful contact with a tribe named Camumbos (meaning ‘The Jaguar People’). The Camumbos taught the Matses to make and use bows and arrows. Before that the Matses used blowguns for hunting. The Camumbos also taught the Matses to use the poison from the acate frog, which was part of their hunting culture. The frog venom was applied to give hunters better marksmanship and make them more energetic. The Camumbos are also the ones from whom the Matses copied their facial tattoos and the men’s facial ornaments.'

Daniel Bai - Matsés elder.

Acate which is also known as sapo or kambo has been traditionally used by the Matsés for generations. This jungle tradition is generally practised by Matsés men in order to improve their hunting prowess and strength. The acate is generally taken on rainy days as the energy and marksmanship is expected to be long-lasting so the benefits of acate are for future hunts when the weather is dry, and also for having energy for other types of work. Acate also has a role in knowledge or skill transmission, for example, if a hunter is down on his luck for a period of time on bringing back game, he will ask one of the best hunters to apply acate venom to him.


The frog which is easy to find due to its distinctive voice is tied and stretched out onto a quickly made rectangle frame. After some minutes of aggravating and disturbing the frog with small sticks, the frog in defence produces a sticky secretion through the skin, which is collected and stored on a carved stick for future ritual use. The frog is then released back to jungle, unharmed.

The secretion of the frog is most commonly applied to superficial burns on the arm or chests. The effects are strong, the poison enters the body and a short-lived but intense heightened heart rate struggle and intense feeling of discomfort follows, often inducing strong vomiting. Thereafter the short-term effect is weakness, and the Matsés generally rest in a hammock to recover for a few hours. If it stops raining, they might go do some work in the afternoon. It is on the following days that they expect to have the stamina and focus for hunting.


A handful of regional Panoan Amazonian ethnic groups including the Amahuaca, Katukina, Kaxinawá, Kulina, Yawanawá, and Marubo also use this frog species for similar practices in their cultures. It should be noted that in recent years the use of  the monkey frog venom (known as sapo or kambo) outside of indigenous cultures has risen tremendously in correlation with the wider use of all rainforest medicines in places as far as off as Miami and London.

For the Matsés, the use of acaté outside of their culture has caused internal conflicts due to the unregulated sale and also the general Matsés view that part of their culture is being taken with little recognition coming back to its origins. Additionally, peptides have been patented from the frog secretions, without Matsés permission or acceptance.

‘I do not agree with Acate leaving our lands, the outside people are misappropriating our traditional practices’ -

Antonio Manquid , Matsés Elder.