Pre-hispanic Law: Origin And Characteristics

The prehispanic law is a concept that encompasses all laws and judicial systems that applied the ancient American civilizations before the arrival of Europeans to the continent. This right was used with a similar purpose to the current right: to maintain social order and avoid internal conflicts within communities.

The law systems of antiquity were not as complex as the current ones, but in many cases there were courts where cases were presented to be studied by judges. The civilizations that most developed their system of law were the largest in Mesoamerica .

Among the most advanced civilizations in terms of pre-Hispanic law, the following stand out: the Olmec culture , the Aztec civilization, the Mayan culture and the population of the great city of Teotihuacán .

There is little record of the law imparted by the Inca civilization, as they did not have a specific writing system and much information was lost over time.



The Olmec civilization was the first great civilization to be established in Mexico during the pre-Hispanic period. Its culture developed in the southern region of the country, an area that today is the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The civilization emerged around 1500 BC. C. and remained firm until the year 400 a. C.

Although the record of this civilization is limited (beyond its art and sculpture), the Olmecs were responsible for having laid the foundations for the development of the civilizations that subsequently emerged. Mayan and Aztec beliefs originated from this culture.

In fact, Mayan law was most likely inherited from the Olmec culture. It is believed that the Mayan civilization arose as a consequence of the development of the Olmecs; therefore, their laws were probably similar.

However, the European conquest wiped out a large number of historical records, which makes it difficult to definitively assert this idea.


The ancient civilization of Teotihuacán developed in a city that bore the same name. It was the largest urban center in all of Mesoamerica and the civilization was made up of a great diversity of aboriginal ethnic groups that were grouped in the city. This led to the emergence of an urban center with a large population.

The population came to be organized in houses and apartments, each citizen having a well-defined right to property. However, much information regarding this civilization has been lost.

Aztec laws and social organization take various elements from this culture, which is thought to be one of the forerunners of the great Mesoamerican cultures.


Mayan law

The law of the Mayan civilization changed several times over time. This happened as a consequence of the dynamism that the Empire had. Civilization was not always incredibly powerful, but had periods in its history in which the social order was compromised.

However, the most important stage of this civilization began around 250 AD and lasted about 700 years. During this stage, Mayan law was headed by a series of dynamic emperors who constantly changed over time.

The law of this civilization, when the Spanish arrived in America, no longer had the same organization that it may have had during its golden age.

By the end of the 16th century, the Mayan cities did not have such a centralized organization and operated for commercial purposes. Therefore, the laws were not so similar between one population and another.

The use of courts and advice to make decisions within the Empire was common. In addition, there were members of the government responsible for enforcing the laws during the golden age of the Empire, when power was well centralized. The judicial system was quite strict and one of the most advanced in all of pre-Hispanic America.

Aztec law

As the Aztec civilization grew, a large number of people were incorporated into its social system. For the Aztecs, the gods were responsible for ruling the people.

The wishes and orders of the gods were represented by the rulers and nobles; priests also played an important role in execution.

However, when it came to the practicality of the Aztec system of law, religion was secondary. The Aztec civilization was made up of a series of cities, which were all allied to each other and had a common emperor.

This social division of civilization made power centralized around the emperor; however, each city had its own system of law.

The system of each city was quite similar, compared to the rest of the Aztec cities, but it presented unique characteristics depending on the regional culture of each community.

The Aztecs recorded a large number of laws that governed the daily life of all the inhabitants. These referred to issues such as the inheritance of assets between families, the country’s economic systems and marriage.

From the Aztec rights , the civilization maintained an order and a defined social organization throughout the entire Empire.

Influence on Mexican law

The structure of Mexican law today originated from all the social, political and cultural changes that occurred in the history of Mexico.

Many of the influences of Mexican law are found in European law, but ancient Mesoamerican civilizations played an important role in creating the current system.

When the Spanish conquerors arrived in America, they first encountered an Aztec Empire with great territorial dominance. Furthermore, the Aztec system of laws had already had time to develop and was in place before the arrival of Europeans in America.

When the Spanish began to exercise dominion over Central America, they did not extensively modify the laws of the Aztecs. In fact, they used the established systems and courts as long as they adhered to the Catholic religion.

The Spanish Crown also approved special laws for the Mexican territory and introduced new legislative norms to the region. This served as an influence for the establishment of the Mexican legal system in the post-independence country.


  1. The Mexican Legal System: A Comprehensive Research Guide, FA Avalos, 2013. Taken from
  2. Aztec Law, Aztec History Online, (nd). Taken from
  3. Law and Justice in the Mayan and Aztec Empires (2,600 BC-1,500 AD), Duhaime’s Encyclopedia of Law, (nd). Taken from
  4. Aztec and Maya Law, Tarlton Law Library, (nd). Taken from
  5. Olmec, Wikipedia in English, 2018. Taken from

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