THE ‘CULTURE’ OF MARTIAL ARTS

Neal Zephyrin

Part III

In the last and final addition of this series we will focus on a little known but widely influential martial art. African martial arts. The African continent is infinitely rich in history. It is not surprising that it boasts one of the oldest martial arts in existence. One of the earliest evidence of martial arts in Africa was discovered in the Beni Hasan tombs in ancient Egypt dating back 2040 and 1785 BCE. Archaeologists found paintings of fighters displaying fighting techniques such as punching, kicking, throwing, and locking of the opponents’ joints. (It is important to note that Egypt is in Africa and that many years of racial inter-mingling have transformed the population of ancient Egypt into its current and modern inhabitants). The Nuba of Sudan, Africa performed a form of martial arts over 2800 years BCE. This form of martial arts included empty-hand combat along with weapons training. There are no records in the world that can claim a documented martial arts tradition older then the fighting arts of the Nuba.

Wrestling and grappling arts are popular throughout Africa. They have been likened to arts such as Pankration. History and documented evidence has shown Greek martial arts such as Pankration have their origins in a very strong African influence (as do art, medicine, science, literature, etc). Tribal fighting arts were once practiced as a method of survival. Prior to colonization, the greatest danger to sub-Saharan Africans was attacks from other tribes. The most interesting aspect of early martial arts was the reliance on memorizing attack and defense techniques by setting them in patterns of dance accompanied by music. These artistic elements of African martial arts have also influenced other arts such as Capoeira, a fighting art originally practiced by African slaves in colonial Brazil, which has its origins in Angola, Africa.

As noted earlier in the series, It is interesting to note one cannot look at the influence of Chinese martial arts, specifically Shaolin Kung Fu without noting the influence it had on other Asian martial arts. To go one step further, the monk named as the founder of Shaolin Kung Fu was Bodhidharma, who left southern India for China in 520 A.D. Many old texts describe him has a man with thick lips, wooly hair and very dark skin. In India, his background has been traced to the black people of India called Dravidians. They had inherited India’s older black civilization known as the Harappan civilization, that existed 4,000 BCE and was the contemporary of Nubia (currently known as Sudan) prior to the first Egyptian dynasty. At the Shaolin temple, Bodhidharma prescribed a set of exercises and movements to keep the monks awake during meditation.

Thus it is quite intriguing to realize the strong influence of African martial arts. But not surprisingly, how could the region that bore the first evidence of human life and civilization not have contributed to the origins and development of martial arts? The advent of colonialism and the African slave trade coupled with the Islamic revitalization of many African countries contributed to the reduction of many different African martial arts, particularly those that had shamanic elements. Nevertheless, regardless of what style of martial arts you practice, the African influence of that art is ever present.

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