Wrestling. Pankration. MMA. Martial arts. Fighting arts. Unarmed combat.

Origins of the Fighting Arts – Ancient Wrestling

Introduction

Welcome back to our look at the origins of the Fighting Arts.  In this post, we shall look at early wrestling and combat techniques.  Techniques that would eventually evolve into the Martial Arts (as we know them today) over the course of history.  From prehistoric survival to Gladiatorial combat in coliseums.  From Ancient Egypt to the early civilizations of Iran and Iraq.  We shall examine the early fighting arts’ early origins from different corners of the globe.  

Lost to history?

Bear in mind that since early methods of recording information were very unreliable.  Many cultures passed on knowledge using the oral tradition (as in they never wrote anything down but passed their knowledge on using word of mouth).  Furthermore, ancient scrolls, aged manuscripts, and faded depictions in art can only provide researchers and archaeologists with some of the stories but not all.  As such it is very difficult to find absolute evidence or a clear timeline.  Sadly much evidence of the early fighting arts has been lost to history.  With that in mind, let us look at what evidence is available.

Grappling in the Ancient World

With regards to actual single hand-to-hand combat, wrestling was undoubtedly the first systemized fighting art.  Wrestling techniques and strategies were developed very early on in history.  Evidence for this is found in many cultures worldwide.

Laamb. Senegalese wrestling. Dakar, Senegal.
Nadaam. Mongolian Wrestling. Ulaanbataar.

Wrestling traditions in (from left to right) Turkey, Senegal, Japan, and Mongolia.

It has been argued that wrestling is actually more than a sport and is indeed an integral part of our human nature.  It is something that our species (males predominantly but also some females) just do.  Anthropologists have noticed similar behaviors in our distant primate ancestors (gorillas and other primates) with their own displays of wrestling.  This has led to the assertion that wrestling may actually be written in our genes.  Earlier men needed to wrestle and demonstrate their aggression and dominance as a display of prowess.  Wrestling was also used indirectly to attract the opposite sex.  The stronger the man, the more attention they would receive from females.  As we evolved and became more civilized, wrestling evolved from this to become a form of simple sporting competition.

Wrestling and fighting? Don't judge, its in our genes apparently.

Many believed that wrestling’s origins lay with the Greeks, however much archaeological evidence suggests otherwise.  The practice of wrestling extends as far back as prehistoric times.  Long before the Greeks battled it out in Olympiad events, wrestling contests were taking place right around the world.  Ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France (17,300 years old) and Bayankhongor, Mongolia (7000 years old) depict humans competing in wrestling bouts.  Wrestling was not limited to just Europe and Asia either. Ancient tribes in Africa and India had their own specific forms of grappling also.

Mesopotamia and Early Civilisations

There is much evidence that supports that the ancient civilizations of the Middle East wrestled both for sport and for combat training.  The Mesopotamian civilizations of Persia, Sumeria, Babylon (now Iran and Iraq) all had their own traditions of grappling.  Archaeologists have uncovered many artifacts, carvings, and statues in the region that depict ancient forms of wrestling.  The Mesopotamian civilizations mentioned above had timelines covering from 4500 (Sumerian) to 331BC (End of Persian Empire).  These have been carbon-dated to prove their legitimacy.  Wrestling is also mentioned in many of the Middle Eastern epics (such as Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh). 

The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC), provides perhaps the earliest literary reference in the history of wrestling. The godlike king Gilgamesh wrestles the wild man Enkidu. The story relates that Gilgamesh throws his opponent and wins the struggle. This brief section of this story provides the earliest historical glimpse at combat sports in the region.

Persian Grappling Traditions

Later during the Parthian Empire (now Iran) 132BC – 226AD a martial arts conditioning system was used by soldiers.  This system called Pahlavani’ was practiced by soldiers to ready them for the battlefield. Pahlavani consisted of traditional grappling (known as ‘koshti’) which was practiced in training halls known as ‘zoorkhaneh’This training consisted of resistance exercises, calisthenics, yoga-type stretches, and grapplingPahlavani included not only grappling elements but also punches and low kicks.  The practice was later adopted in the Indian subcontinent as pehlwani.  Pahlavani is still practiced today in Zoorkhaneh gymnasiums in the Iran/Iraq regions.  It is recognized by UNESCO as the world’s longest-running form of such training.

Training in a Zoorkhaneh in modern Iran (left).  Modern competitive Iranian Pahlavani (right).

Egyptian sources

While early forms of wrestling certainly existed around the entire African continent, there is clear evidence of wrestling to be found on tombs in Egypt. Wrestling was extremely popular with the ancient Egyptians, judging by how often the sport appears in Egyptian art.  Some of the artwork dates as far back as 3000BC (such as the cave paintings at Beni Hasan in Egypt).

Other wrestling scenes include a painting from a 5th Dynasty (2400 BC) tomb found in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt. The tomb belonged to Old Kingdom ruler Ptahhotep.  The painting depicts six pairs of Egyptian and Nubian boys wrestling. Strikingly, nearly all of the techniques seen in modern freestyle wrestling could be found!  More evidence of wrestling emerged from the Middle Kingdom (2000-1780 BC) with over 400 wrestling scenes discovered during that period alone.

Wrestling painting from old Kingdom tomb of Ptahhotep in Saqqara, Egypt dated (2400BC).

From the context of the paintings in these tombs, it was evident that wrestling was extremely popular in Ancient Egypt, and practiced by many different classes.  It is evident that the sport was more organized during these periods. However, no written descriptions of matches or actual techniques have been uncovered by archaeologists. 

Predecessor to Kung Fu

Another very early form of wrestling was Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling).  Shuai Jiao is the most ancient of all Chinese martial arts reputedly with a history of over 4,000 years!  Its first recorded use, in a military engagement, was reportedly in 2,697BC.  This was when the Yellow Emperor of China fought against the rebel Chih Yiu and his army.  The Emperor’s soldiers used ‘horned helmets’ and gored their opponents while using a primitive form of grappling. This early style of recorded combat was first called Jiao Ti (headbutting with horns).

Throughout the centuries, new techniques emerged, more striking and grappling elements (locks, throws, and holds) were added to the practice.  These evolving combat methods eventually became systemized and recorded.  In time, Jiao Ti evolved to become Shuai Jiao.

Shuai Jiao practice in 20th century China.

The Granddaddy of the Chinese Martial Arts

Shuai Jiao (as its known today) developed during the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600BC).   During this time it developed into a wrestling-based system with combat applications (striking elements).  The fighting art features in the book of rites published during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). The founder of Judo, Jigaro Kano, even credited a Chinese monk for bringing Shuai Jiao to Japan.  Kano acknowledged that it provided the foundations for Japanese Jiu-Jitsu.

Shuai Jiao literally translates as “grab and throw“.  Naturally, its main strategy is throwing down the opponent, using techniques of gripping and throwing.  

General Elements of Shuai Jiao include:

  • ‘Shuai’ (grappling)
  • ‘Na’ (Joint and pressure point manipulation)
  • ‘Dian’ (Point striking)
  • ‘Cui’ (Breaking and dislocation)
  • ‘Da’ (Kicking and striking)

NB: In the sport version of Shuai Jiao, punching, kicking and locks are not permitted.  Furthermore, if any part of the body other than a competitor’s feet touch the ground, that competitor loses the match.

The traditions of Shuai Jiao wrestling continue into the present day.

Chinese martial arts eventually went off in another direction with striking elements becoming more popular as with Gongfu (Kung Fu).  However, Shuai Jiao would later reemerge in the 1950s.  At this time the Chinese Communist Party wanted to create a new combat system for its military. They would take elements of Shuai Jiao and fuse them with other martial arts.  These included various forms of Kung Fu as well as Russian Combat Sambo. The result would eventually become Chinese Sanda or Sanshao.  Today Shuai Jiao is widely recognized as the father of Chinese Martial Arts.  However, unlike Kung Fu styles, the focus is on throwing and takedowns as opposed to striking and punching.

Indian Traditions

Often overlooked for their fighting traditions.  Indian striking techniques are thought to be one of the foundations for many Kung-Fu techniques that eventually surfaced in China. Indian combat techniques are described in various Sanskrit historical and holy texts.  These include the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Sangam Tamil literature.  The written holy texts themselves range from (1500BC-300AD) although the oral tradition is much older.  So trying to get any historical timeline with them is difficult.  Traditional Indian wrestling methods, ‘Malla-yuddha’, are described within the holy texts including the Mahabharata.

Wrestling in the Indian subcontinent has been mentioned in various Sanskrit historical and holy texts including the Mahabharat (circa 3050 BC) and the Ramayana.

Malla-yuddha is the traditional form of combat wrestling that originated in India. This fighting system incorporated grappling, joint-breaking, submissions, punching, biting, choking, and pressure point striking.  Malla yuddha matches could range from purely sporting competitive events to demonstrate strength or actual bloody, full-contact fights.  Due to the extreme violence, this latter form is generally no longer practiced. The second form, wherein wrestlers attempt to lift each other off the ground for three seconds, still exists in south India to this day. Competitors still wrestle as in ancient times, on dirt floors wearing only kowpeenam or loincloth.

Modern day Pehlwani Wrestling in India

Fusion of Mulla-Yudda and Kusti

Later when the Mughal Empire conquered parts of Northern India (circa 16th Century).  They brought with them training methods and traditions of Iranian and Mongolian wrestling.  They referred to their grappling style as ‘kusti’ and had elements of groundwork. Over the years, the fighting styles of Mulla-yudda and Kusti combined fused to create PehlwaniThe name ‘Pehlwani’ derives from the Iranian word “Pehalavi” denoting its Iranian origins).

As is clear, wrestling and combat sports existed long before the Greeks and Romans began bashing each other’s brains out for sport in Arenas and Coliseums.  This brings us to the aforementioned innovators of single combat violence.  Let us start with the Greeks… 

Palestra - Greek Olympic Combat

Wrestling in Ancient Greece was known as ‘palé’ and appears in documents and accounts from 708BC onwards. Pale was very popular and competitions took place in the ancient Olympic Games and other Panhellenic festivals.  Greek wrestling wasn’t all that different from modern versions of the sport, with the competitors being placed in a marked area and forced to grapple with each other. The first contender to press their opponent’s back to the floor was essentially the winner. 

The major thing the Greeks bought to the sport of Wrestling was some organization.  Some rules and regulations were put in place and the sport also saw the debut of the tournament format.  Competitors were placed into ranks and had to compete to get to the top of the grid.  The rules, techniques, and matches were also much better documented than previous forms of wrestling.  This is probably why it is so easy to find evidence and research compared to earlier forms of grappling. 

Theseus is the reputed founder of scientific wrestling. In mythology during a fight between Theseus and the robber Cercyon. Theseus uses his wrestling skill to overcome his undefeated foe.
The son of Zeus, Hercules. Famous for wrestling giants, monsters, huge animals and umm his own kids... Here he wrestles the Nemean Lion.

A Violent Art form

Another thing the Greeks bought was a passion for skill and technical flair.  For them, wrestling was both a science and an art.  Great importance was attached to technical skill and expertise. It wasn’t enough to just throw or pin an opponent using brute force.  A wrestler had to display skill and ability in overcoming their opponent.  Any displays of poor technique was frowned upon.  Wrestling was a massive hit in Ancient Greek culture, appearing in Greek literature with mythological subjects (such as Heracles and Theseus) displaying skill to overcome their opponents.

Pankration - Ancient Greece’s Mortal Kombat!!

Roughly around the 7th century BC combat sports in Greece took a far deadlier turn.  Pankration (translation –  ‘All Force’) began to emerge and became very popular with the masses.  Pankration was essentially the precursor to what we now know as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts).  It is perhaps the most well-known form of early fighting arts.

Pankration was a hand-to-hand, submission sport with very few rules introduced into the Greek Olympic Games in 648 BC. The athletes combined boxing and wrestling techniques, but also used kicking, holds, locks, and chokes on the ground. It was an ‘all force’ anything goes, no holds barred type of competition. 

Pankration . The long lost ancestor of modern MMA (Mixed Martial Arts).

No retreat, no surrender

The sport was highly infamous for its ferocity.  It allowed such tactics as knees to the head and eye gouging. Indeed, severe injuries and death were very, very common.  The fights would only end once an opponent was knocked out or raised a finger to signal they submittedMany combatants refused to surrender and died from their injuries!  One ancient account tells of a situation in which the judges had great difficulty trying to determine the winner of a match. The problem was that both men had actually died from their injuries, making it next to impossible to decide upon the winner. After much discussion, it was decided that the winner was the man who had not had his eyes gouged out!!  Over time, vicious techniques such as eye gouging were discouraged to prevent such unpleasant incidents.

Pankration was not just a sporting event, it also had military applications.  Pankration was a significant part of many Hellenic (Greek) civilizations’ soldiers’ training.  This included the famous Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian troops.  At the battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans last stand, they were said to have fought with their bare hands and teeth once their swords and spears broke.  

Both the troops of Alexander the Great (left) and the Spartans (right) would have trained in some form of Pankration.

Pankration becomes lost to history

Eventually, most Greek city-states (not Sparta!) became more sophisticated and civilized.  As a result, the men’s pankration was gradually replaced with a much less intense version of the sport around 200BCPankration continued to be a feature in the Olympics and other Panhellenic (All-Greece) games until its abolition in 394 AD.  In the decades following that decree, the practice of the sport died out, seemingly eliminating it from the annals of history forever. Until modern times when the sport was revived by Martial Arts enthusiast Jim Arvenentis in the 1970s.

The Age of the Gladiator

After the Roman conquest of the Greeks (Between 146 – 27 BC), Greek culture was absorbed by the Romans.  This included the traditions of wrestling, Pankration and the Olympics.  Greek wrestling became Roman wrestling.  Likewise, the Romans adopted Pankration (spelled Pancratium in Latin) into the Olympics Games and other Roman Stadium events.  However, that just simply wasn’t enough for the bloodthirsty Emperors and crowds of Rome.  Rome decided to raise violence in combat sports to a degree not seen before or since in all of history.  The era of the Gladiator was about to begin…

The bloodthirsty crowds of Rome in the colliseum.

Around the 3rd century BC at important events, vicious battles were fought for the entertainment of guests.  These battles often involved the downtrodden of society, political prisoners, outcasts, slaves, criminals, Christians. These were people who were worthless in Roman society.  Sometimes they would be free men who signed a contract for money and fame. A kind of murderous version of ‘Rome’s has got Talent’ emerged.  The various organized fights lasted for a few days and brought crowds of spectators. The fighters involved became known as ‘Gladiators’ (‘swordsmen’, a ‘Gladius’ was a type of short sword).

"Are you not entertained? Oh alright then lets get some Tigers in there..."

Blood in the Sand

Lots of money was spent on making gladiatorial combat as spectacular and memorable as possible.  For a politician in Rome organizing a successful event could help ensure them a high position. The combat was notorious for its vicious weapons and fights to the death. Over time, the demands of the people grew more and more macabre.  The weapons became more lethal and so did the combat, with not only humans fighting but also exotic animals.  These beasts ranged from lions, tigers, leopards, and even elephants.  The number of games also increased until there was almost no day without gladiatorial fights.  Gladiatorial combat was not solely limited to Rome either.  Gladiator events took place in the provinces right throughout the Empire. Roman amphitheaters, where prisoners fought, are still standing in many European former-Roman cities.

'Rome's Got Talent'

Gladiator Training

Numerous Gladiatorial schools were established over time, where slaves were prepared for duels in the arena.  Combat techniques were developed to assist gladiators in overcoming their opponents as efficiently and effectively as possible.  The fighting arts became perfected, as experience gained by Gladiators in making efficient lethal kills was passed on in training schools.  All for the profit of the rich and the powerful.

When someone became a gladiator, they were assigned a specific type and style of fighting and practiced it constantly. A specific type of gladiator only fought another specific type of gladiator as determined by well-established rules. These pairings were intended to provide the combatants with offsetting strengths and weaknesses in an effort to give the best showing.

The ‘Caestus’. A type of knuckle duster from ancient Rome.  Used during boxing matches played by gladiators. Unlike modern boxing gloves, which are designed to suppress the impact force, the caestus was used to increase the damage inflicted on the opponent.

Abolition

As the spread of Christianity grew in the Empire, the desire for this level of barbarity decreased.  Crowds dwindled as many embraced the new faith of love, peace, and compassion.  Emperors also converted and passed laws forbidding these types of events.  Finally, in 393 AD the pankration, along with all gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, was abolished by edict by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I.  Pankration itself was an event in the Olympic Games for some 1,400 years.

Discussion

Origins

From the evidence available it seems clear that wrestling (in its various forms) evolved independently around the globe.  Ever since humans discovered fire, we have strived to improve our lot in life.  This has extended to the fighting arts.  Homo-sapiens innate ingenuity and pragmatism gave us a predisposition to make even the arts of war more efficient.  So regardless of where humans were placed throughout the world, improving fighting techniques is something that would have come naturally to us.  

Tactics

Throughout history, wrestling became an art where brute power and strength were not enough to best an opponent. Humans have cunning, strategic brains, and a natural predisposition to turn to the best tools at our disposal when disadvantaged. Eventually, skill, intelligence, and tactics were employed to overcome the odds in fights.  Tricks, feints, grapples and counter grapples were developed and utilized. Many of the techniques used in various forms of wrestling worldwide are similar in many ways.  Why? Because they were effective and developed over centuries of trial and error, victory, defeat, pain, and glory.  Granted that certain specialized techniques might have developed in one place and then been adopted by neighboring cultures.  

Where does Wrestling fit in today

Before the suspension of international travel, there was never a better time for grappling sports.  International communities of numerous disciplines from Freestyle Wrestling to Russian Sambo competed regularly.  Hopefully, that will change again with time once the world opens up for business again.  With the emergence of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), it is interesting to see these various styles of grappling being used competitively. Indeed, wrestling is an integral part of MMA.  A fighter who is not skilled at least in defensive wrestling can find themselves in trouble if the fight hits the mat.  The styles of grappling that surface in MMA are many.  Pankration (modern version), Combat Sambo, Freestyle Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Judo, Shoot wrestling to name a few.  

Legacy of the Gladiators

Who knows where the evolution of wrestling methods will bring us in time. As newer, potentially more effective methods are developed from the old.  Thankfully in our modern age, combat sports rules, regulations, safety have evolved.  The spirit of the Gladiators and the Pankratists of old may be with us in competition. However, we no longer have to fight to the death to entertain blood-crazed audiences.

Our next post will continue looking into the continued evolution of the Fighting Arts from its early origins. We will cover the emergence of Fighting Arts from the Medieval Period into the Modern Age.

Capoeira. Brazilian Martial Arts.
Pugilism. Western Boxing. MMA. Fighting arts. Martial Arts.

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