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A Little History of the Martial Arts – Part 1

Welcome to the first of a series of posts – in which we’ll be exploring the history of martial arts from the first historical records dealing with fighting skills through to martial arts today.

The first historical records dealing with codified Unarmed fighting skills are ancient Egyptian in origin and represent a crude type of temple boxing there are hieroglyphics showing royal guards that look like they have their hands wrapped and are engaged in boxing.

However many scholars consider that the ancient Greeks were the first to evolve a more organised system of combat. The Greeks were known to have developed wrestling and boxing to quite high levels. Their fighting skills in PANKRATION (game of all powers) allowed them to use any technique they wished in unarmed combat except eye gouging. As far as we know Pankration is the first recorded fighting discipline which devised a method of kicking and integrated it with punches and empty hand strikes. This art quickly became a sport and was introduced into the Olympic Games in 648 BC.

Ancient Greek statutes of pankration fighters, note the hands wrapped in the last picture of the seated boxer!
Ancient Greek statutes of pankration fighters, note the hands wrapped in the last picture of the seated boxer!



Ancient Greek statutes of pankration fighters, note the hands wrapped in the last picture of the seated boxer!

Archaeologists have recently unearthed a series of Babylonian plaques depicting figures in fighting stances using counter-blocking techniques. These plaques date back more than 5000 years, perhaps indicating that there was a systemized method of unarmed combat around the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia which later travelled eastward, to be developed by the Indians and then the Chinese.

If we look at some of the first ancient Indian writing such as the ancient Vedas they have descriptions of combat between the Gods and between mankind some of them describing very exotic weapons and fighting systems, and given that the date of human civilization is continually being pushed back all around the world to at least 12,000 yrs if not earlier then it seems that systems of combat will also be traced back to those first civilizations, so maybe the Greeks where just the inheritors of these systems and not the originators.

If some of the more unorthodox historians are to be believed then we can push civilization further back to pre ice age, Plato talks of the Atlantian’s in his works and states that this civilization flourished 10,000 yrs ago and was at one stage at war with Athens, but I think the unfortunate thing is that as long as there has been man on the planet there has been a need for self protection, not just of the individual but the family unit, the tribe and the country.

Village martial arts abounded in all regions of ancient China. Travel was restricted; villagers and townspeople preferred to remain within the confines of their own boundaries and city limits and only religious monks and holy men wandered far abroad. Because of the dangers of robbers and bandits, these wandering priests learned unarmed-combat methods, which in their turn they taught to other disciples. Consequently many different styles of fighting gradually emerged. Some forms placed great emphasis on kicking techniques, where as others relied upon fist and open-palm strikes. So it was that the martial arts nestled comfortably within the bosom of religion.

To fully understand the traditional eastern martial arts, one must have at least a working knowledge of three religions which then dominated China, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

In part two we will explore the three religions and their effect on the martial arts of the east as well as some of the fighting arts and religions of the western world which has just as much pedigree and fighting effectiveness as the eastern martial arts.