The Origins of the Top 5 Most Ancient Martial Arts that are Still Practiced Today
Movies, television shows, and cartoons are populated with dazzling martial artists ranging from the Kung-Fu antics of Hong Kong Phooey the crime fighting dog, to the mesmerizing Jeet Kune Do of Bruce Lee; not to mention the secret arts of ninjutsu, applied by those deadly black-clad ninjas. However, all of these sensationalized martial arts are relatively modern conceptions of the oldest deadly arts, ancient systems of hand to hand combat which were hatched at the earliest moments in the development of human civilization.
The term ‘martial arts’ comes from the Latin; “arts of Mars, after the Roman god of war and conflict.” But to get to the origins of ‘all’ combat styles, we must go back to a time in human evolution when the Latin language was not even conceptualized. Working backwards, from modern history into deep-prehistory, these are the world’s five oldest martial arts:
The word Pankration comes from πᾶν ( pan) “all” and κράτος ( kratos) meaning “strength, might, power”, thus, the term means "all power.” Originating around 2000 BC, Greek mythology claims the system was applied by the legendary Heracles (Hercules) when he fought the Nemean Lion, and also by Theseus, who used it to fight the Minotaur. Pankration was introduced to the ancient Greek Olympics in 648 BC and some modern historians attribute the origins of Pankration as having developed as a ‘war technique’ by the Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx.
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The Pancrastinae. A Roman statue portraying the pancratium, which was an event showcased at the Colosseum. Roman copy of a lost Greek original, circa 3rd Century BC. (Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0)
According to Michael Poliakoff’s 1986 book Studies in the Terminology of Greek Combat Sport, the art of Pankration combined boxing and wrestling, permitted kicking and holds, locks and chokes. Contests were savage, with battering, twisting of limbs, strangling, and struggling on the ground. They only ended when one of the fighters submitted, was rendered unconscious, or died. Although Pankration was not reinstated as an event when the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, modern Pankration tournaments are still held, in which the fighting style has become a niche form of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
4. Shuai Jiao
Ancient Chinese records made in 2697 BC detail the activities of soldiers practicing an ancient style of military Kung-Fu known as "jǐao dǐ" ( horn butting) in the winter. The soldiers wore ‘horned headgear’ and attempted to ‘butt’ and throw their enemies out of a circle. This particular fighting discipline has been described as the original source of ‘all’ latter forms of martial arts in China, and a later development, Jiao li, was first referenced in the Classic of Rites during the Zhou Dynasty. It brought in a range of new blocks, joint locks, and strikes on pressure points.
Etching of a Shuai jiao wrestling match during the Tang Dynasty. (Public Domain)
This discipline of martial arts became a very popular public sport, but these community events were actually clever devices used by the fight organizers as a way to highlight and recruit the strongest fighters on a local level to fight for the potential reward of being hired as one of the emperor’s bodyguards. The term “shuai jiao” was chosen by the Central Guoshu Academy of Nanjing in 1928 when the fighting rules were formalized. It continues to be taught in police and military academies in China today.
Malla-yudda emerged as early as 3000 BC in several South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. In Sanskrit, mallayuddha translates to “wrestling combat” and refers to a ‘prize-fight’ more than any particular style or school of wrestling. A famous Indian folktale tells of a legendary Malay hero who was a specialist in malla-yudda. The earliest written record of the event is found in the Mahabharata, a 5th century BC ancient Indian epic.
The ancient Jarasandha's Akhara (wrestling arena) mentioned in the Mahabharata epic is located at Rajgir in Bihar, India. (LRBurdak/CC BY SA 3.0)
Classic Malla-yudda is divided into four fighting styles, each named after and protected by a Hindu god: Jambuvanti, adopts locks and holds to force opponents into submission; Hanumanti concentrates on technical superiority; Jarasandhi, practices the breaking of limbs and dislocation of joints; and Bhimaseni, is the manipulation of one’s opponents weight, using gravity and sheer strength. Malla-yudda lost popularity at the end of the 16th century, but it is still practiced in small communities of fighters across South Asia.
The earliest ‘recorded' evidence of fist-fighting competitions was found on ancient Sumerian reliefs discovered in modern-day Iraq which were created in the 3rd millennium BC in the Mesopotamian nations of Assyria and Babylonia, and in Hittite art from Asia Minor. In 1350 BC, a relief sculpture carved in Thebes, modern Egypt, illustrated two naked, bare-fisted fighters wearing bands supporting their wrists, which evolved into the classic boxing glove.
The earliest evidence of fist fighting ‘with gloves’ was found on Minoan Crete dating to around 1500 BC, and the first formalized boxing rules appeared at the 23rd Olympiad of 688 BC. Today, boxing is one of the world’s most popular spectator sports and is an essential component in modern MMA.
Painting of Minoan youths boxing from an Akrotiri fresco circa 1650 BC; the earliest documented use of boxing gloves. (Public Domain)
Forms of grappling and wrestling were recorded by many ancient cultures and the martial art’s actual origins are impossible to pinpoint. However, unarmed wrestling is accepted as the oldest combat technique in history. Wrestling was clearly depicted in ancient Egypt around 2000 BC, but older statues than the Egyptian depict men grappling. If we are to accept the claims of some historians, featured on AthleticScholarships.Net, wrestling is even depicted in 15,000-year-old cave drawings in France.
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Ancient Egyptian depiction of two wrestlers, circa 2000 BC. (Public Domain)
In ancient Greece, wrestling was taught to soldiers, who were all experts in hand-to-hand combat. As wrestling evolved, it became a very popular Olympic sport and was recorded at the 18th Olympiad event in 704 BC. A 2nd century BC Greek papyrus manuscript detailing wrestling instructions is currently the earliest known European martial arts guidance manual.
Martial arts are ancient codified systems and traditions of hand to hand combat sequences and techniques. With ancient origins in self-defense and tribal territorial conquest, martial arts evolved through military, law enforcement, and within systems of conscious and spiritual development. Today, the highly-trained warriors of the ancient arts are still providers of some of our best forms of entertainment.
Top Image: Male karate fighter (PointImages / Adobe Stock)
By Ashley Cowie
Alter, J. S. (1992). The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cowie, A. (2018), The History of Boxing: Gory Gladiatorial Origins, Back Street Venues, and Big Money. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/history-boxing-0010959
Poliakoff, M. (1986), Studies in the Terminology of Greek Combat Sport. Frankfurt: Hain.
Zhongyi T. & T. Cartmell. (2005), The Method of Chinese Wrestling.
Skurdenis, J. (2005), Wrestling, archery and horse racing contests in Genghis Khan's ancient capital, Karakorum. The Chronicle.