Tambo (Incan structure)

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A Tambo (Quechua: tampu, "inn") was an Incan structure built for administrative and military purposes. Found along Incan roads, tambos typically contained supplies, served as lodging for itinerant state personnel,[1] and were depositories of quipu-based accounting records.

Characteristics and Functions[edit]

At a minimum, tambos would contain housing, cooking facilities, and storage facilities.[2] Beyond this, a considerable amount of variation between different tambos exist. Some tambos were little more than simple inns, while others were essentially cities that provided temporary housing for travelers.[2] Architecture and documentary evidence suggest that the functional sizes of the settlements probably corresponded to their capacity to house a population.[3]

The functions of the tambos were dependent on their size as well as the facilities they contained. Every tambo had the capacity to house various state officials.[2] For example, the smallest tambos served as relay stations for the chasquis, who were state messengers who ran along state roads.[2][4] Larger tambos could provide other functions as well. For example, larger tambos would have larger storehouses that could provide supplies and some lodging for armies on the move.[5] This function should not be allowed to cause confusion between tambos and qullqa, which were only storehouses that armies would resupply from as they passed by.[6] The largest and most luxurious tambos were generally used to lodge the traveling Inca and his entourage (typically wives and state officials).[2][4]

Beyond taking care of various kinds of travelers, larger tambos would also contain facilities where various specialists, such as potters and weavers, would produce their goods.[2] They could also served as administrative centers from which local lords would oversee the region.[5] Furthermore, larger tambos would contain ceremonial spaces which would serve as places for religious practices.[5]

Pedro Cieza de León made numerous references to the tambos in his Crónicas de Peru; in the following passage, Cieza de León described the general uses for the tambos that he learned from native peoples:

"And so there would be adequate supplies for their men, every four leagues there were lodgings and storehouses, and the representatives or stewards who lived in the capital of the provinces took great care to see that the natives kept these inns or lodgings (tambos) well supplied. And so certain of them would not give more than others, and all should make their contribution, they kept the accounts by a method of knots, which they call quipus, and in this way, after the troops had passed by, they could check and see that there had been no fraud."[7]


Many historians or scholars state that tambos are generally placed a day's walk from each other.[8] However, as Hyslop points out, there are many factors, both individual and external, that can affect how much one can walk in a day, which makes this description problematic.[8] In practice, the distances between tambos vary wildly, ranging from fewer than 10km to nearly 45km.[9] Many different factors affected the placement of these tambos. In general, the Inca would try to build them near water and favorable terrain, while they would try to avoid unfavorable terrain (such as marshes or steep slopes).[10] In some cases, the Inca would try to build away from local population centers (for reasons unknown), but other times would try to build near local labor sources.[11] Furthermore, tambos placement may have been influenced by the average speed of llama caravans, which would move more slowly than an individual.[11] Another important traveler that would move more slowly than a typical individual would be the Sapa Inka.[12] Since the Sapa Inka would travel with a grand procession, travel would be slower than if he were traveling alone, which would require closer tambo placement.[12]


Remains of tambos are scattered throughout modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia.[13] The remains of the tambos display a large variety of architectural styles. Although this variation is hard to capture in complete detail, some rough categories can be defined. For example, some tambos were built before the Incan empire existed, and the Inca simply took control of them.[14] Pre-Incan tambo architecture can be divided into 2 basic categories. Some tambos were not modified in any way and therefore feature an architectural style that is distinctly pre-Incan.[14] However, some of these sites were renovated by the Inca, so some pre-Incan sites do feature some Incan architecture.[14]

For the sites built in the Incan period, the architecture styles can be divided into three basic categories. Some tampu were definitively local in their architectural style.[14] This typically happened in places where the local culture was strong and was permitted to continue.[14] Other sites would have mostly Incan architecture, but would have at least some subtle influence from local traditions.[15] Finally, some tambos would contain only Incan style architecture.[16] Because of the strong influence local culture tends to have on these structures, Incan style-only tambos tend to exist more in isolated areas as opposed to areas with large populations.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Provincial Power in the Inka Empire. by Terence N. D'Altroy. 1992. Smithsonian Institution. page 101 ISBN 1-56098-115-6
  2. ^ a b c d e f Suarez and George. (2011) Pg. 40
  3. ^ Provincial Power in the Inka Empire. by Terence N. D'Altroy. 1992. Smithsonian Institution. page 98. ISBN 1-56098-115-6
  4. ^ a b The Wired Professor (2008). "A History of Information Highways and Byways". Retrieved 2008-01-24. 
  5. ^ a b c Hyslop, John. The Inka Road System. Academic Press, 1984. Pg. 279.
  6. ^ Suarez, Ananda Cohen, and Jeremy James George. Handbook to Life in the Inca World. Facts On File, 2011. Pg. 110
  7. ^ Cieza de León, Pedro de, The Incas of Pedro de Cieza de León, translated by Harriet de Onis. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959, p. 105 (Chapter LXXXII).
  8. ^ a b Hyslop. (1984). Pg. 297.
  9. ^ Hyslop. (1984). Pg. 300.
  10. ^ Hyslop. (1984). Pg. 301.
  11. ^ a b Hyslop. (1984). Pg. 301-302.
  12. ^ a b Hyslop. (1984). Pg. 303.
  13. ^ Owen, Bruce (2006). "The Inka: The Lens Through Which We See the Andean Past" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-01-24. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Hyslop. (1984) Pg. 280
  15. ^ Hyslop. (1984). Pg 280-281.
  16. ^ a b Hyslop. (1984). Pg. 281.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adorno, Rolena. “The Depiction of Self and Other in Colonial Peru.” Art Journal, Summer 1990, Vol. 49 Issue 2, p110-19.
  • Cieza de León, Pedro de, The Incas of Pedro de Cieza de León, translated by Harriet de Onis. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.
  • Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America (Fourth Edition). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992 (1946).
  • Diffie, Bailey W. “A Markham Contribution to the Leyenda Negra.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1936), 96-103.
  • Diffie, Bailey W. Latin-American Civilization: Colonial Period. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole and Sons, 1945.
  • Dobyns, Henry F. and Doughty, Paul L. Peru: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Mancall, Peter C. (ed.). Travel Narratives from the Age of Discovery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Marett, Sir Robert. Peru. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.
  • Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico & History of the Conquest of Peru. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.