7 Oldest Martial Arts in The World

When people think of martial arts, they most likely picture the most popular forms such as Kung-fu, Karate, Judo, and Jiu-jitsu. While the popularity of these martial arts is widespread throughout the world, thanks in large part to movies and television, they are fairly recent in the history of martial arts.

There are several lesser known martial arts, that are still practiced today, with histories stretching all the way back to the earliest human civilizations.

In many cases, it is hard to provide an accurate date of origin for a particular martial art as human records don’t exist from the early human history.

7. Taekkyon

Year Originated c.50 BCE
Country of Origin: Korea
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  No

Taekkyonphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Taekkyon is believed to be one of the earliest forms of Korean martial arts. The earliest records of Taekkyon dates back to around 50 BCE to paintings found in the ancient tombs of Muyongchong and Samsilchong of the Goguryeo Dynasty.

There is additional evidence that shows that Taekkyon was used by a large number of military men during the Goguryeo era. During the 15th century, Taekkyon’s popularity was widely spread and even the king practiced the sport.

However, by the end of the 13th century Taekkyon was no longer an actively practiced martial art. Taekkyon’s survival is attributed to Song Duk-ki (1893-1987), who preserved the art and passed it down to modern Koreans, who re-popularized Taekkyon by the mid 1980s.

6. Kalaripayattu

Year Originated c.1000 BCE
Country of Origin: India
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  No

Kalaripayattuphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Kalaripayattu is not as old as other forms of martial arts on this list, it is often cited as being the oldest martial art discipline. Its history can be traced back over 3000 years to the Vedas, which are a large body of knowledge texts from the ancient Indian subcontinent.

According to legend, Kalaripayattu was created by Parasurama, who was the sixth avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu.

Many people believe that Kalaripayattu influenced the well-known Shaolin Kung Fu because Bodhi Dharma, a Buddhist monk and Kalaripayattu master, is often credited with teaching the first Shaolin monks techniques derived from Kalaripayattu.

5. Pankration

Year Originated c.2000 BCE
Country of Origin: Ancient Greece
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  No – was introduced to the ancient Olympics in 648 BCE

Pankrationphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Pankration is an ancient martial art form from Greece that combined boxing with wrestling, but also allowed kicking. According to Greek mythology, Pankration was first used by Heracles (Hercules) to fight the Nemean Lion and Theseus, who used it to fight the Minotaur.

Historians now believe that Pankration dates back further than 648 BCE, when it was introduced to the Olympics. Evidence suggests that Pankration actually stretches back to around 2000 BCE as a war technique used by the Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx.

Although Pankration was not reinstated as an event during when the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, there are modern Pankration tournaments and it is considered a form of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

4. Shuai Jiao

Year Originated c.2697 BCE
Country of Origin: China
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  No

Shuai Jiaophoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Shuai Jiao (known as Chinese Wrestling in English), is considered to be the most ancient of China’s martial arts. The first record of its use, which was called Jiao Ti at the time, dates back to 2697 BCE when the legendary Yellow Emperor fought against Chih Yiu.

Jiao Ti eventually evolved into a combat wrestling system called Jiao Li that was systematized for the military during the Zhou Dynasty (1122 – 256 BCE).

Jiao Li eventually became a popular sport during the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BCE) and the best Jiao Li fighters were chosen to become the Emperor’s bodyguards.

In the modern era, Shuai Jiao is taught in Chinese police and military academies.

3. Malla-yudda

Year Originated c.3000 BCE
Country of Origin: Several South Asian countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  No

Malla-yuddaphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Malla-yuddha is an ancient form of wrestling that originated in South Asia and dates back to at least 3000 BCE through the folktale of a legendary Malay hero who practiced malla-yudda. The earliest written records of malla-yuddha is in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic from the 5th century BCE.

Malla-yuddha is divided into four styles each named after a Hindu god: Hanumanti which concentrates on technical superiority; Jambuvanti, which uses locks and holds to force the opponent into submission; Jarasandhi, that focuses on breaking the limbs and joints; and Bhimaseni, which demonstrates sheer strength.

Although malla-yuddha faded in popularity by the end of the 16th century, it is still practiced by small communities in South Asia.

2. Boxing

Year Originated unknown – earliest depiction dates back to 3000 BCE
Country of Origin: unknown – earliest depiction from ancient Sumeria (modern-day southern Iraq)
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  Yes

Boxing photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Along with wrestling, boxing was most likely one of the first martial arts developed by early humans. Although boxing’s exact origins are unknown, the earliest depictions of the sport come from a Sumerian (one of the very first civilizations) relief from 3000 BCE — several other ancient civilizations also depicted boxing in their art.

By the time boxing was introduced to the Olympics in 688 BCE, it was a well developed and consistently popular sport in Ancient Greece.

Today, boxing still remains as a popular spectator sport and is an essential part of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

1. Wrestling/Grappling

Year Originated unknown – earliest depiction dates back to 2000 BCE, but there are statues that date further back
Country of Origin: uunknown – earliest depiction is from Egypt
Still Practiced:  Yes
Current Olympic Sport:  Yes

Wrestling/Grapplingphoto source: army.mil

Depending on your definition of martial arts, wrestling is the oldest martial art and combat technique in history with the earliest depictions of wrestling dating back to Egypt circa 2000 BCE. However, wrestling probably dates back to the early days of humanity as statues older than the Egyptian images show what can be interpreted as two men grappling or wrestling

Different forms of wrestling have been mentioned in the ancient histories of several cultures, so its origins are hard to trace. In ancient Greece, wrestling was a popular martial art and was featured as an Olympic sport since at least the 18th Olympiad in 704 BCE.

A Greek papyrus manuscript — called Papyrus Oxyrhynchus — from around the 2nd century BCE contains instructions for wrestling, making it the earliest known European martial arts manual.


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