Tracing the history of martial arts can be difficult. Even historians cannot currently agree upon how martial arts came to be. Part of the problem stems from the fact that a lot of the early history was never written down. I have illustrations from thousands of years ago depicting people who are purported to be engaged in a martial arts bout. However, whether it was true martial arts is anybody’s guess.
On top of this, you have to throw in the fact that martial arts were independently developed in several different countries. This means that you don’t have one history of martial arts. You have dozens.
On this page, I am going to give you the briefest overview of the history of martial arts. I won’t be able to cover everything. That would take a rather lengthy book to do. However, I am hoping that this information will spur you on to do your own research. This way, you can learn even more about the history of martial arts, which is genuinely quite fascinating.
The Earliest Martial Arts
Things start off rather tricky. This is because I don’t actually know whether the early depictions of martial arts are true martial arts. If they are, then it is likely that martial arts originated somewhere in Ancient Egypt in 3000 BCE, or at least this was the first civilization to depict a combat sport of this nature. By 2,000 BCE, I know for sure that organized wrestling was happening throughout Egypt.
Slightly before this, there is some belief that combat sports similar to martial arts were happening in Ancient China. This part was written down around 5,000 BCE. However, I am not 100% sure whether this is martial arts. It may have just been a way to describe real combat techniques.
What I do know is that there were martial arts happening in Ancient India. This was also written down. Records from India in antiquity talk about large battles fought with non-lethal weapons, sports that resemble wrestling, and something which was very similar to kickboxing. There was also evidence that fighting styles differed depending on whether somebody lived. This was likely done as a way to worship the Gods.
I will leave the earliest martial arts there because, as I said, I would be here forever if I mentioned everything related to early martial arts. I still have a lot to cover.
The Evolution of Martial Arts
Martial arts properly started to evolve in around 480 BC. At this time, India and China were both developing their own unique styles of martial arts. Evidence of trade at the time indicates that the two cultures were starting to share various martial arts techniques. It is believed that this is when Asian martial arts styles really started to develop.
Now, I am going to zip on over to Europe, starting with Ancient Greece and a little thing called The Olympics in 776 BCE. I know that the earliest Olympic Games featured the following sports:
Of course, the Roman Empire was also running martial arts sports in their gladiatorial arenas.
From the 5th to 15th Centuries in Europe, there is evidence of a wealth of different combat sports coming to be. Many of them involved the use of weapons (swords and shields), although I also had a few hand-to-hand combat sports too.
The real evolution in martial arts happened with the Samurai, which popped up in the 12th Century in Japan. The Samurai, as you know, were specialized military. They had a very, very important job. Part of this job involved being proficient with a variety of weapons and fighting styles.
Of course, since the Samurai had to practice these styles, this gave rise to even more fighting methods, some of which evolved into modern martial arts styles.
What I do want to point out at this point is that the early history of martial arts is mostly just people fighting, mostly for entertainment or training. There were established fighting systems, but there was a whole lot of them. It doesn’t appear as if there were people going out of their way to determine established rules and the like, at least outside of events like The Olympics.
Modern Martial Arts
It wasn’t actually until the 19th Century that what I know as martial arts started to take form. Over time, all these traditional fighting systems had been pulled into clearly defined rulesets. In the last 200 years, the following martial arts were created. Sure, they are depicted as ancient traditions, and they are. However, the rules are fairly new:
Since the 19th Century, I have also seen the rules for boxing and wrestling take a bit more form.
Perhaps the biggest boost to martial arts came in 1897. A guy by the name of Edward William Barton-Wright traveled to Japan where he learned Jujutsu. He decided that he loved the sport so much that when he headed back to the United States, he began to produce a wealth of different training courses for those that wanted to learn the ‘ancient’ Asian fighting styles.
It wasn’t long after this that I started to see modern martial arts being included in the modern Olympics. This included fencing and boxing.
Throughout the rest of the 20th Century, I started to see the evolution of a variety of martial arts rulesets, with kickboxing, MMA, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu making their presence known towards the end of the 1990s.
Martial arts is still going through a boon right now, with many ancient Indian ways of fighting starting to make a comeback, so who knows how the history of martial arts is going to evolve from here on out.
While the history of martial arts can easily stretch back thousands and thousands of years, what I know of martial arts is relatively recent, with many of the sports being practiced nowadays forming in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This means that modern martial arts are still relatively fresh, and it would be interesting to see the way things will go from now.