Above cover-photo for this page is the Affe mit Schädel (“Ape with skull,” photo by Jfderry – Own work) is a famous Bronze by the late-19th-century German sculptor Hugo Rheinhold. Photo by CC BY 3.0

Where did it all begin? Why martial arts? The following is an ultra-brief summary of the evolution of life on earth, the growth and development of each individual, the origin of wars, the origin of martial arts and the transition of martial arts from killing arts to sports.

Life on earth began about 3.7 billion years ago and that long road has had a lot of twists and turns. Contrary to popular opinion, humans have not always made wars and fortunately humans are no longer fish. Thus, the old saying: “the big fish eats the small fish,” is usually misapplied when describing humans.

There is a saying in biology: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

What? That means the growth and development of an individual human (from one cell, to four, to eight, and so on) mirrors the growth and evolution of the species. The match is not perfect, yet to deny the commonalities is equally incorrect. Indeed, the human fetus has something resembling a gill, and birth is not so different from our ancestors crawling up onto dry land for the first time around 400 million years ago.

Image from: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/ontogeny-and-phylogeny/

The reason we have a ball and socket joint in our shoulders and opposable thumbs is because our ancestors lived in the trees. One needs a rotating shoulder joint to swing around the trees.

Restoration of Archicebus achilles (Xijun Ni / Chinese Academy of Sciences) Downloaded from: Science News

Our ancestors came down from the trees six or seven million years ago. Our ability to stand up straight co-evolved with the development of the “new brain” or Neo-cortex, and our transition from a mostly vegetarian diet to a meat eating/omnivorous diet.

Domestication of fruits and grains (farming) first started sometime around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, generally thought to happen due to warmer climates from the end of the last ice age. The earliest domesticated grains had more edible kernels than the older wild varieties. The first farming settlements led to the rise of the first city states, and the first wars, for where there are great inequalities between groups and individuals, there will probably be conflicts, unless constrained by strongly enforced laws, treaties and/or other binding forces.

Great King Urukagina (c. 24th century BCE) is believed to have written and instituted the first great system of laws in what is now Iraq. “He is best known for his reforms to combat corruption, which are sometimes cited as the first example of a legal code in recorded history… In it, he exempted widows and orphans from taxes; compelled the city to pay funeral expenses (including the ritual food and drink libations for the journey of the dead into the lower world); and decreed that the rich must use silver when purchasing from the poor, and if the poor does not wish to sell, the powerful man (the rich man or the priest) cannot force him to do so.”

Source: Wikipedia

Since then innumerable legal systems have evolved, with the general intent to increase everyone’s freedom, e.g., the freedom to live without being murdered, the freedom to own property without it being stolen, and so on.

The most complete surviving set of ancient laws was the Code of Hammurabi c. 1755–1750 BCE, inscribed upon ancient stele (stone slab or column). The one below is at the Louvre, though believed to have been originally located in Sippar, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and found at Susa, Iran.

The Hammurabi code on a diorite stele, Louvre. Photo by Mbzt and one more author CC BY 3.0, Downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_of_Hammurabi#/media/File:P1050763_Louvre_code_Hammurabi_face_rwk.JPG

Historically martial arts were war arts designed for killing and generally passed down within armies and/or families, and secret. Ancient Egypt had extensive martial art training from wrestling to boxing/kicking arts, sword/staff/stick and spear fighting, and chariot combat.


Image of two ancient Egyptian men practicing Tahtib on an ostracon. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard, CC BY-SA 1.0

Tahtib is an Egyptian form of stick fighting that originated as training for a martial/war art, and later turned into a dance form. “The oldest traces of Tahtib were found on engravings from the archaeological site of Abusir, an extensive necropolis of the Old Kingdom period, located in the south-western suburbs of Cairo. On some of the reliefs of the Pyramid of Sahure (V dynasty, c. 2500 BC);[9] the images and explanatory captions are particularly precise and accurate in their depiction of what seems to be military training using sticks. Tahtib, with archery and wrestling, was then among the three disciplines of warfare taught to soldiers.” Wikipedia

From north Africa and the Middle East combat systems further evolved as they migrated north east and west, flowing into the ancient Greek art of Pankration in the original Olympic games in the west, and military arts of China and beyond in the east.


The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife. Photo by G. Brundage in Xi’an, China (2011).

Modern East Asian Martial Arts

The rise of modern East Asian martial arts which double as sports can be attributed to the Japanese transition from the older killing/war arts of Jujitsu to Ju-do and for example Kenjitsu to Ken-do. The “do” at the end of Kendo, Judo, Kendo, etc., means, according to Don Draeger and Robert W. Smith’s classic book: Asian Fighting Arts, that the art is a “civil art” designed for sport as compared to a traditional war (martial) art.

Ditto for Taekwondo, which is a sport of relatively modern origin, though its roots are likely to be of much more ancient origin – uniquely tailored to Korean physiognomy.

Photo attribution: Thrift Books.com

(I was so lucky to find a copy of this book the year it was published, 1974, and read it again and again with close attention.)

Taekwondo diverged into two federations as a byproduct of the Cold War, with the first, the International Taekwondo Federation forming in 1966 and the second, the World Taekwondo Federation in 1973. The WTF – now rebranded at “World Taekwondo,” organizes the Taekwondo in the Olympics and in most cases, taekwondo athletes were/are only allowed to fight in their own federation’s tournaments. Will they ever get back together? It seems unlikely, possibly due to different sport philosophies and commercial interests. See Black Belt magazine’s article for details.

Will humans ever evolve back into a world without war? I think probably yes.

Above is a photo of the Kadesh Peace Treaty, the earliest known surviving peace treaty written more than 3,000 years ago in 1269 BC, designed to end the wars between the Egyptian and Hittite empires. For more information about those conflicts and means designed to bring peace, take a look at: https://eacpe.org/the-first-written-peace-treaty. Photo above taken at the 1st Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, by G. Brundage, 2016.

Please recall above I reported: The first farming settlements led to the rise of the first city states, and the first wars, for where there are great inequalities between groups and individuals, there will probably be conflicts, unless constrained by strongly enforced laws, treaties and/or other binding forces. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is one such binding force, and one can only hope and pray humanity will grow up enough to realize that diversity is good, as is maintaining a multi-polar world. The alternatives? Pretty bleak, to put it mildly.

Taekwondo, and all members of the human family can play a role.

I picked up the above T-shirt at the World Military Taekwondo Championships in South Korea in May, 2008.