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What Was The Very First Martial Art? How Martial Arts Started

Photo by Ginu C Plathottam

Martial arts is a combat style that has a rich and varied history through the ages of many ancient cultures. The martial arts we practice today all have their roots in these historical fighting styles, but what was the first martial art developed, and where did it come from?

Kalaripayattu is the first martial art that can be traced back to a combat sport that was actually used in combat on the battlefield. Kalaripayattu spread to China through the Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, who taught the technique to Shaolin monks and became Shaolin Kung fu.

Our modern forms of martial arts have their roots deeply embedded in ancient fighting arts, some from a variety of styles that originated centuries in the past. The first martial art ever created that we have historical evidence of may be surprising to many people!

What Was The First Martial Art?

Finding the origins of martial arts can be difficult due to historical records only being available for a limited time of our human history.

There may have been fighting styles developed prior to written history, but those styles will be lost forever due to no written or pictorial evidence of their existence.

The oldest known martial art, and therefore the fighting style being credited as the first known martial art, is Kalaripayattu. This martial art has a 3000-year-old known history and originated in the southwest regions of India.

Kalaripayattu, sometimes known as just Kalari, was a fighting style developed specifically for the battlefield, which is why it is considered by most to be the first true martial art. Wrestling has been around for longer, with depictions that it was used as a sport in ancient Egypt. However, there is no indication that wrestling was used on the battlefield.

Kalari was taught to men and women alike in India. The name of the martial art roughly translates to “practice in arts of the battlefield.” The martial art was invented to train the Indian people for battle. Some of the movements from the fighting style were introduced to many of the cultural dances of the time.

When Britain colonized India, the practitioners of Kalari were considered such a threat that the teaching and studying of the martial art were banned. The British took this so seriously that the punishment for practicing the art was either exile or death.

Kalaripayattu includes weapons training, strikes, kicks, formulated moves, grappling, and knowledge about pressure points on the body that can harm or heal.

Which Country Used Martial Arts For The Very First Time?

The Country that shows martial arts being used for the first time is Egypt. A mural discovered in a tomb in Beni Hasan in Egypt unmistakably depicts a sequence of wrestling moves.

The mural is quite detailed in its depiction of several wrestling holds, takedowns, defenses against takedowns, and throws. The level of detail can imply that wrestling was popular at the time, and the mural is similar to a training manual.

However, there is no indication that wrestling in Egypt was ever considered a battlefield technique, so the only conclusion that can be drawn is that it was for sport. This is why Kalaripayattu is credited as the oldest martial art since it is known to have been used as part of warrior training for battle.

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Who Is Considered The Father Of ALL Martial Arts?

The man who is considered the father of ALL martial arts is a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma. His existence is known, but his exploits are a mix of legend and truth. Bodhidharma was proficient in the Indian martial art, Kalaripayattu, which formed part of the combat training he taught. 

The exact time of his life is not known but thought to be either the 5th or the 6th century. He came from the western regions of central Asia and was credited with bringing martial arts and Buddhism to East Asia when he traveled to this region.

Bodhidharma began teaching Shaolin monks martial arts techniques, which was the birth of Shaolin Kungfu in China.

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Why Did Martial Arts Develop In Asia?

Martial arts developed in Asia firstly among monks and secondly among peasants who had no other way of defending themselves from attackers.

As the use of martial arts spread, it was taught to family and tribal clans who used these combat skills to fight other tribes and clans. Weapons were simple, and combat was hand to hand, which required the development of superior combat skills to defeat raiding parties from rival families or clans.

Emperors In China, particularly Huang Di, who was trained in wrestling and pole fighting, insisted that all his troops were trained in martial arts. Since that time, martial arts have become an integral part of soldier training in China.

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Why Was There Secrecy In Chinese Martial Arts?

It was a matter of survival. Chinese martial arts techniques were closely guarded ancient secrets and were only taught to clan members. The intent around the secrecy was to have techniques in their style that were unknown to rival clans and gave them an edge over their opponents in battle.

The traditions of each clan’s martial art were passed down from father to son, and the advanced techniques were only taught to those deemed worthy with proven loyalty to the family.

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Who Invented Martial Arts In China?

There is no definitive historical account for any one person who invented or developed martial arts in China. However, many legends and folklore attribute the Yellow Emperor Huangdi with firmly establishing martial arts in China.

Huangdi wrote many papers on various topics, from medicine to astrology and martial arts. Huangdi’s main rival at the time, Chi You, is credited as the founder of Jiao di, which was the precursor to modern Chinese wrestling styles.

What Is The Oldest Martial Art In China?

The oldest formal form of martial arts in China is commonly considered to be Jiao di, which was the founding martial art for modern Chinese wrestling, called Shuai Jiao.

Jiao di included strikes, throws, pressure point attacks, and joint manipulations among the techniques taught as part of the combat style.

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What Is The Oldest Japanese Martial Art?

The oldest form of martial art known in Japan is Koryu, which, when translated, means old school or old style. The term had meaning for schools teaching an array of traditional arts. Ko-budo was the school that taught fighting arts.

Other terms that describe this original combat art were Koryu bujitsu, which was taught as a real-world martial art for use in actual combat on the battlefield.

While Koryu was the foundational martial art, it led to the development of many other martial arts in Japan, including Karate, Judo, Aikido, Sumo, Kendo, and Jujitsu.

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Which Is Older Kung Fu Or Karate?

Kung fu is historically a Chinese martial art, while Karate is a Japanese martial art. Kung fu is the older combat art of the two and has influenced some of the moves and techniques in Karate.

Kung fu has more circular movements and relies on shifting weight and balance, while Karate is a mire linear fighting style.

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What Was The First Martial Art Added To The Olympics?

Wrestling is attributed as being the first martial art to be included in the Olympic Games, introduced to the Olympics in 708 BC.

Boxing made its first appearance in the Olympic games in 688 BC, 20 years after wrestling. Judo was the first Asian martial art included in the Olympic Games in 1964. Judo was not part of the 1968 Olympic game agenda but re-appeared in 1972 and has been included in the games ever since.

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Martial arts have a long history dating far back into the mists of time in human history. Martial arts are probably older than we think, but we can only go by sparse written and pictorial depictions. 

Even with the pictorial history, there is no conclusive evidence of the martial arts intention, so deductions have to be made.

From the history that can be pieced together, the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu stands tall as the origin of martial arts and has influenced every martial art developed since!