Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico


Noah Zachary
published on 23 June 2023
Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico
Author: Yanna Yannakakis
Audience: Professional
Difficulty: Hard
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Published: 2023
Pages: 352

Aimed at a scholarly audience, Yanna Yannakakis' "Since Time Immemorial" explores how Spanish authorities and indigenous elites navigated the ambiguous boundary between custom and law in 16th-century Mexico. Deeply reasoned and argued, this book should be of interest to both history majors and experts interested in the legal framework of Spanish Mexico.

In Since Time Immemorial, Emory University history professor Yanna Yannakakis explores the meaning of a specific word at a specific time – "custom" – and what it meant during Spain's rule over Mexico. As Spanish leaders sought to consolidate control over their new holdings, they found it necessary to acknowledge the continuing legitimacy of indigenous custom even as they asserted the primacy of imperial law and Christianity. This gave indigenous communities some space to preserve the continuity of their own traditions, carving out a space of agency within the hierarchy of the Spanish Empire. All the same, Yannakakis warns against overstating this; the ultimate purpose of custom, as understood by the empire, was to integrate custom within the framework of Spanish law.

Yannakakis marshals a vast array of evidence to make her case.

Unquestionably, Yannakakis is well-qualified to write on the subject. A professor of history at Emory College, she has written extensively about Spain's colonial holdings, focusing in particular on the boundaries of law and the ways in which local elites attempted to carve out a zone of autonomy within the empire by relying on tolerance of indigenous customs and mastering the intricacies of Spanish law. Her work is most interested in the places where the law breaks down and merges with tradition, culture, faith, and, in this book, custom.

Understanding what "custom" meant to both Spanish leaders and indigenous communities is a large part of this book. Yannakakis traces the history of custom in European law to the Roman Empire, which also faced the task of controlling disparate cultures over a massive area with the primary goal of extracting labor. Roman jurists first began to delineate when local custom should supersede imperial law; thus, this story of 16th-century Mexico truly begins with Aristotle, Plato, and the very roots of Europe's legal tradition. Yannakakis goes on to show how this Roman legal tradition played out in the multicultural Spain of the reconquista, creating laws that would be carried forward to the Americas.

Yannakakis marshals a vast array of evidence to make her case. Her sources range from law books to catechisms. One particularly fascinating source is the Spanish-Nahuatl dictionaries, many of which defined the term "custom" in ways both revealing and self-serving as Spanish scholars attempted to integrate some indigenous customs while obliterating others that contravened Christian values. In this respect, a superficial acceptance of some indigenous customs conceals a deeper system of domination. However, far from claiming that indigenous elites passively submitted to this system, Yannakakis shows that they used every recourse under the law to defend their own interests and those of their communities – or, at other times, found ways to exploit their neighbors using the framework of the law. Yannakakis explores this through deep readings of Mexican legal proceedings that reveal the way Spanish judges and native litigants navigated what rapidly became a complex system. In this respect, this book complicates a simplistic binary of indigenous people and settlers instead of showing how a process of negotiation and debate produced a gestalt legal tradition.

Deeply researched, Since Time Immemorial is aimed mainly at a scholarly audience. It assumes a working knowledge of Mexico's colonial history and aims in large part to temper works that, in Yannakakis' view, have overstated the extent to which Spanish respect for custom permitted indigenous autonomy. However, it is written without an overreliance on jargon or theory, so it is accessible to any interested person who is willing to do the work of reading a rich and complex text. In addition, this book contains helpful maps and photos of Native communities' registers or other materials. Likewise, it will be illuminating for graduate students or undergraduates majoring in history who wish to explore this crucial stage of American history in more detail.

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About the Reviewer

Noah Zachary
Noah Zachary is a graduate of California State University East Bay. His research focuses on the environmental history of North America, with a focus on water use and agriculture.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Zachary, N. (2023, June 23). Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Zachary, Noah. "Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 23, 2023.

MLA Style

Zachary, Noah. "Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 23 Jun 2023. Web. 20 Apr 2024.