Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

What is the Oldest Martial Art? (With Proof)

Throughout history, humans have engaged in countless forms and styles of combat. Many martial arts created centuries ago are still used and practiced today. But what was the first martial art that humans ever created? What is the oldest martial art?

The oldest martial art is wrestling, as based on the available documented history of various martial arts, wrestling is by far the oldest one. Ancient artifacts depicting wrestling techniques have been dated to as far back as 7000 BC. One notable artifact is a mural in a burial tomb in Beni Hasan, Egypt, which illustrates many detailed wrestling scenarios.

But it’s not that simple…

If you consider the fact that there is a huge part of human history that is not recorded, it is very much possible that there are various primitive forms of martial arts that have been lost in history. As you read this article, keep in mind that it is more than likely that even the earliest humans used some form of combat, albeit likely unnamed and unstructured.

Because we cannot possibly know every form of combat ever thought of, in this article we will be looking at the oldest recorded and structured martial arts. Whether it be through writing or spoken word, the martial arts looked at here will have some sort of trackable and dated history which we can use to define how old the martial art is. Let’s get started!

The Mother of All Martial Arts: Kalaripayattu (300 BC)

Kalaripayattu is a martial art from India, and (as you have already seen), it is referred to by some as the mother of all martial arts. It is also considered the oldest martial art still in existence (although if you keep reading, you’ll find out why that’s not true).

This martial art consists of weapons such as daggers, swords, and spears, as well as unarmed combat. Stances are taught to students of this discipline (similar to kata in karate), and sparring with partners is seen with and without weaponry (although sticks are used in place weapons).

As interesting and well-rounded as this martial art may be, it is not the oldest martial art. Many regard it as the “original” martial art, due to it’s supposed influence in the creation of Eastern martial arts such as Karate and Kung Fu. According to Indian epic poetry and the Vedas (religious texts) this martial art originated around 300 BC.

Two Indian students train in Kalaripayattu weaponry.
Two Indian students train in Kalaripayattu weaponry.

Gladiators of the Roman Empire (400 BC)

You are most likely familiar with the Colosseum, a popular tourist destination in Italy, famously known for housing gladiatorial contests for the Roman people. The fights contested by the Gladiators in the Colosseum have since been depicted in various forms of film and literature. However, what you may not know is that Gladiators went to school to train and learn how to fight.

Although the types of combat the Gladiators trained in are unnamed, their fighting and training style was as defined and structured as any other martial art. Before being able to fight in gladiatorial events, the Gladiators to-be had to attend Gladiator school. On entry, the focus of the students was to achieve peak physical fitness, so as to max out their potential fighting ability.

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The next step would be to train in combat. Most fights were fought with weapons, including swords, tridents, and spears, and so the Gladiators were taught to use these proficiently. Gladiators would be given wooden swords, (usually twice as heavy as the real counterpart) and would strike a wooden pole to practice their technique.

So just how old is the martial art of the Gladiators? According to Roman Historian Titus Livius, the Gladiator games were first held in 310 BC by the Campanians, a region in southern Italy. However, ancient Campanian tomb murals depicting paired fighters have been dated to as far back as 400 BC.

Lucanian fresco tomb painting of a two men fighting.
Lucanian fresco tomb painting of two men fighting, 3rd century BC, Paestum Archaeological Museum.

Ancient Greek Martial Arts: Boxing (1500 BC)

It is well known that the Ancient Greeks were well ahead of their time in multiple disciplines, and martial arts is definitely no exception. The Ancient Greeks practiced various forms of combat, and many of them trained as much as they studied, early adapters of the principle of “strong body, strong mind”.

These forms of combat were also exciting (and deadly) events at the Ancient Olympic Games. The three main martial arts practiced by the Ancient Greeks were Boxing, Wrestling, and Pankration.

Of these, Ancient Greece’s earliest recorded and most structured martial art was boxing. Boxing was a martial art first introduced to the Ancient Olympic Games in 688 BCE. It was known as pygmachia in Ancient Greece and was very similar to the sport of boxing that we know today.

Participants in boxing events trained by hitting punching bags, and wore leather straps around their arms and wrists, similar to modern-day hand wraps. If you’ve ever wondered why wraps and gloves are important, check out another post I made on why boxers wear gloves.

It is difficult to say definitively when exactly boxing was created. It is known to have existed well before the Ancient Olympic Games first introduced it, as according to Homer’s Iliad (written in 800 BC), warriors of the Mycenaean civilization participated in boxing competitions to honor their fallen comrades.

Homer’s account of boxing aligns with the painting shown below, in which two Minoan youths seem to engage in hand-to-hand combat, with some sort of padding on their fists. The Minoan civilization preceded the Mycenaean civilization, and thus, this painting has been traced to as far back as 1500 BCE. However, there is one martial art that is older still…

Two boxers competing in Ancient Greece.
Two Minoan boxers competing in Ancient Greece, 1500 BC.

Ancient Egyptian Wrestling (2000 BC)

If you were looking for the definitive answer to the question “What is the oldest martial art?”, then here it is: Wrestling is the earliest known form of martial art. Wrestling is a martial art in which one person imposes their will on another, and attempts to put their opponent on their back in order to win the more dominant position. It uses various grips, locks, and holds to position, control, and submit an opponent.

Wrestling is a natural interaction between two humans, as even Great Apes have been seen demonstrating primitive forms of wrestling in combat. There are depictions of humans in wrestling-like scenarios that can be traced to Ancient Mongolia as far back as 7000 BC.

However, a martial art does not just consist of two humans in a combat situation. Martial Arts are structured, and contain specific techniques and forms that can be described, taught, and replicated. We are looking for the earliest artifact that can show an understanding of wrestling while paying attention to the technique. The artifact I’m describing existed as far as 2000 BC, and it is a mural located in a burial tomb in Beni Hasan, Egypt.

A mural depicting wrestling positions, located in the 15th tomb in Beni Hasan, 2000 BC.
A mural depicting wrestling positions, located in the 15th tomb in Beni Hasan, 2000 BC.

The mural has contains an impressive number of wrestling positions, and demonstrates a deep understanding of wrestling through the artist’s detailed depictions. In the mural we can see many forms of trips, locks, grips, throws, takedowns, and takedown defense, all of which are used today in modern forms of grappling. In the recreation below, these techniques can be seen in greater detail.

A black and white depiction of the wrestling mural of tomb 15 at Beni Hasan.
A black and white depiction of the wrestling mural of tomb 15 at Beni Hasan.

So as we’ve seen, the Ancient Egyptians had the earliest form of what we think of as a “martial art”: a form of combat that can be trained for specifically and that has rules, with a wealth of knowledge that can be learned to improve at the discipline. There are references and artifacts from earlier times depicting wrestling-like encounters, but none of them are as detailed or as intentional as the mural of tomb 15 in Beni Hasan, Egypt, officially marking wrestling as the oldest martial art. Thanks for reading!