In ancient times, man had to learn to use, beyond traditional weapons, the parts of his body to defend himself against aggressors. It seems quite impossible to describe the trajectory of martial arts accurately, since they were present in almost all civilizations and cultures. In the absence of records, we must rely on legends. However, the current Asian martial arts may have originated in India.
In Egypt, the tomb of Amererht at Beni Hassan (c. 2000 BC) shows scenes of wrestling. In Crete, scenes with boxing gloves are depicted on murals of the Minoan civilization. At the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, Boxing, Wrestling and Pankration competitions were disputed. But many of these martial arts lost their importance in later times. This can be explained by a greater appreciation of combat practices using exclusively cold weapons (as the gladiators used), the prohibition of the ancient Olympic Games in 393 by Roman Emperor Theodosius I who established Christianity as the sole religion of the Roman Empire and the emergence of firearms.
If Wrestling or Boxing still existed in Europe (and they were even practiced by the nobility), they showed no major innovations and only from the 18th century on they began to be professionalized and the first rules were established.
East Asian martial arts
In contrast, the East Asian martial arts have a much wider range of styles with more advanced techniques. Hundreds of different styles were developed over the last 2000 years, Japan having the greatest diversity of martial arts. Some of the most well-known fighting styles ( Aikido, Judo, Karate-Do) have a recent origin, while others are much older (Kung Fu, Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu, this last was practiced by the samurais).
According to historians, the use of these sophisticated techniques may have arisen in India (first practiced by Buddhist monks) where they expanded to the rest of Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Indochina) following the diffusion of Buddhism. As Buddhist rules forbade the use of weapons, the monks developed methods of self defense as protection on their journeys, applying scientific concepts (manipulation of pressure points, lever systems, center of gravity).
These techniques may be derived from Vajramuschti, a fighting art reserved for the warrior class from which Buddha belonged.
This early link of Asian martial arts with Buddhism may explain why goals of personal development are included, unlike other martial arts which are practiced only for sport or military training.
Others claim that the earliest records of Chinese martial arts are previous to Buddhism (some include references to Taoism), which would suggest a common origin between China and India.
As the army of Alexander the Great reached India in the 4th century B.C, it is likely that the fighting techniques used in Greece were taught locally.
Legend says that in the sixth century A.D, monk Bodhidharma came from India to the Shaolin temple in the province of Henan, China, to teach monks breathing techniques and exercises that became the basis of Shaolin Boxing and which inspired most of Kung Fu schools. The records, however, show that martial arts (including Kung Fu) existed in China before Bodhidharma' s visit. The Chinese influence in Japan can be noticed both in culture (the concept of Budo as a moral path comes from the Chinese Tao) as in fighting styles (Okinawa techniques that originated Karate were brought by Chinese missionaries).
The interest of the West for Eastern martial arts found its origin in the late 19th century. Despite the ban on Japanese martial arts between 1945 and 1950 by the American occupation authorities after Japan's defeat in World War II, the Far East fighting styles spread throughout the world, boosted by the popularity of Hong Kong and Hollywood movies and Mixed Martial Arts competitions such as UFC and PRIDE (this last extinct).