I've been training in martial arts since the 1980s and consistently since the '90s. I am a 2nd-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.
The human body is well-structured for the practice of martial arts. It is certainly true that effective martial arts are tailored to the natural functions and capabilities of the human body. After all, if your body can't do it, you won't do it. But it is not about limitation so much as capability. So, what is it about the human body that allows for the practice of the fighting techniques which have been developed in the martial arts?
It is the purpose of this article to explore how human evolution has allowed for the development of martial arts. It is not the intent of this article to say that evolution inevitably led to creating fighting systems, nor to imply that violence is natural to humanity. It is only my intent to show how the human body, as it had developed in our evolutionary history, has made it possible for the development and practice of martial arts. Though no one can say that human beings have always fought, or that our prehistoric ancestors spent any significant time fighting, we do know that for at least thousands of years, as recorded in our written history, human beings have had wars, human beings have been fighting. In fact, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back 4000 years ago, depict martial arts techniques. So, it is a rather well established fact that human beings have had systems of combat for a very long time.
Then, what is it about our evolved anatomy which allows for the formulation and execution of martial arts methods?
The human body is better equipped for certain things, compared to our primate ancestors: These things include bi-pedalism (standing and walking on two legs, upright), opposable thumbs to allow for grabbing and generally better digit dexterity, a structure of the legs and feet that allow a human to propel objects or his or her own body, and a brain capable of many complex operations. The intent of this article is to examine how our evolutionary development allowed for the physical execution of martial arts techniques.
Bipedalism and Upright Posture
Human beings, as differentiated from our evolutionary ancestors, stand upright and walk on two feet. This is called bipedalism. The entry point of the spine, in human beings, is at the bottom-center of the skull, as opposed to our primate ancestor apes whose spines enter at the back of the skull. Therefore, we humans are able to keep our heads up, while apes' heads hang forward. Our spines are curved in two places, at the top and bottom, the curve at the bottom adding support to our upright posture and bipedal mobility. There are wider surface areas on the pelvic bone and thigh joints, creating thigh bones which angle inwards towards the knee (the knee too having greater capacity for bearing the weight of the body); in apes, the opposite is the case: Their thighs angle outward, when they make brief attempts to stand and walk, disallowing them to walk effectively on two feet. In humans, we also have strong and versatile hip and thigh muscles which has allowed for our bipedalism. The center of gravity for humans is upon the feet; this allows us to balance on one foot and leg while the other foot and leg swings forward in bipedal locomotion (walking).
How do all these facts come together to illustrate how our evolved anatomical structure lends itself to development and practice of martial arts?
An upright posture, with head situated on top of the spine, with back straight and eyes forward, is highly conducive to proper and effective self defense. In such a position, one can see the three dimensions of height, width, and depth (primates generally have well-developed depth perception compared to other species, which allows for seeing objects at close range and also seeing detail, which is an aid in defending against surprise attacks). When the head is bowed and a person is bent at the waist, vision is obscured and he or she is vulnerable to attack from underneath and also from being pounced on from above. With head up, back straight, and eyes forward, a person is able to see what is coming at him or her from multiple directions, making self defense much more feasible. In addition, from this posture, certain principles of power are available to the individual, such as using gravity to gain power and momentum for downward strikes, making use of full body weight. Also, from this position, having comparatively stronger leg and hip muscles, the individual is able to propel fighting techniques from the four limbs, synchronized with the whole body; upright locomotion allows for this synchronized action, weight being distributed and balanced over the feet. Able to balance on two feet, one's hands are freed for versatile actions; able to balance on one foot, a person is able to use the other foot as a weapon (it has been said that a kick is just an exaggerated step).
Opposable Thumbs and the Ability to Throw Objects and Swing a Club
The human thumb is unique in its comparatively stronger and more versatile muscles, as distinguished from other primates. It has given us the precision grip and the power grip; the former is necessary for more delicate manipulation of objects, while the latter is suited for strong handling of objects; it is what gives us the more adept ability to throw objects, use a weapon, and shape tools. In the action of throwing objects or swinging a club, in addition, the well-developed muscles of the legs and hips are used. It is one logical step to see how this aids in throwing punches and strikes with power and accuracy, especially when also considering our better vision and the muscles that have evolved to allow for bipedalism. It is also evident that our ability to use the hand as a grip allows for grappling while fighting. It is also interesting to note that disarming techniques' effectiveness depends on being able to pry a weapon out of an opponent's hand, going against his or her thumb. We can also see how human beings have been able to develop techniques involving fingers as weapons aimed at soft and vulnerable targets on an opponent.
A Larger Brain
At least two factors of our evolved brain has allowed us to develop martial arts: Our ability to plan and our ability to do multiple and complex things with precise timing. One of the elements of the human brain which has allowed for tool making is the ability to use two hands in different ways at the same time, while simultaneously timing the hands actions perfectly within milliseconds. The seemingly simple action of holding a stone in one hand while striking it with a stone in the other hand to fashion a tool, is actually a very complex brain operation, even involving spontaneous adjustments in line with the tool making plan. In martial arts, limbs and body are constantly adjusting and taking simultaneous and differing actions; this is evident in locks and throws, which require the coordination of hands, arms, and legs to seize up an opponent's joint or manipulate him or her in directions laterally and downward (otherwise known as a “throw”).
The brain is able, also, to understand how to formulate these techniques and adjust them to circumstances. The brain can instantaneously time actions for desired results, as well as plan and formulate actions for the future.
In conclusion, the evolutionary developments that paved the way for the creation, practice, and execution of martial arts include bipedalism, the dexterity and strength of the thumb, and an expanded brain which had the capacity to plan and also adjust action instantaneously for desired results. The muscles in the hips and thighs and the skeletal structure necessary for bipedalism and carrying the weight of the body (balanced) on two feet, created the capacity for punching and striking techniques executed with power and precision. The opposable thumb allows for grappling, weapon use, and also enhanced the use of the muscles of the legs and hips in throwing objects or using weapons. The brain which can handle multiple tasks, directing multiple parts of the body, and which can spontaneously time and adjust action, allows for a good bulk of martial arts techniques, particularly locks and throws. In addition, such a brain is capable of planning and formulating, which, of course, is the basis for the capacity to create fighting arts.
Here are some links to very interesting and relevant articles on human evolution
- Walking Upright | The Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program
- Wanna be an Anthropologist : Bipedal Adaptations in the Hominid Pelvis
- Fear of Snakes Drove Pre-Human Evolution | LiveScience
Your keen eyesight can be traced back to an arms race between snakes and early primates, according to a radical new theory.
- Evolution: Library: Walking Tall
- Human Evolution
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on November 10, 2012:
An AYM, you just re-affirmed what I said in the article; the way we practice martial arts is due to how we are built, which was developed through evolution; so, yes, if we were quadrapeds we would be moving differently; but our brains are designed for planning and using elaborate moves and formulating those moves into a system. The reason the hieroglyphs look modern is because they are reproductions of actual hieroglyphs from the Beni Hasan site which is 4000 years old; pictures of the original site are difficult to see on this format. I can certainly tell you are young, so I am being forgiving of your semi-trollish behavior.
An AYM on November 10, 2012:
I think the only thing which makes our bodies applicable for martial arts is conscientious discipline. I imagine were we quadrapeds with the same brains we would figure out systems of martial arts just as elaborate.
Also - your Heiroglyphics appear to be from 2011?
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 22, 2012:
Hahaha! I have to say, that chimpanzee has skills. Maybe martial arts goes back way farther than I thought!
Insane Mundane from Earth on October 22, 2012:
This video has been out for several years, but I think this particular Hub calls for the "Kung Fu Monkey" video, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlWCEOMxxFw
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on September 16, 2012:
Thank you very much, I truly appreciate what you have said; yes, I did put good work and attention into this piece. I will definitely have to see that Bruce Lee documentary. Also wishing you well and giving good energy your way.
epigramman on September 16, 2012:
....well not only are you an avid reader and historian yourself - you have provided us with a labor of love here with your enthusiasm, passion and all seeing wisdom - and highly recommended to you is probably the best documentary I've ever seen on BRUCE LEE called
I am Bruce Lee - a fairly new release on dvd - and sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 8:14am