The Martial Arts of Our Hunter Gatherer Ancestors

I grew up binging on martial arts movies. First at the age of 5 at my uncles house watching movies on the reel and then later on VHS. When I found myself skipping school as a young teenager, I spent my days at this run down movie house in the midst of Johannesburg City – where for the price of a few dollars you could watch two martial art movies back to back.


Throughout all those movies, especially the ones based on more older forms of martial artistry, I was always struck how embedded in ever storyline was the ideal of martial arts as being more than just about learning how to fight. As was often the case in these movies, the hero to be, goes off in search of a teacher, only then to be taught about the soft skills of building positive character traits. Being righteous, being honourable, and using one’s skills only for the right reasons was always a central message for the hero in these movies. The bad guys were always the ones who misused their martial skills.


So What?

While I always admired the hero of these movies who was able to both cultivate his martial prowess, along with positive and worthy virtues — my life was anything but this. Growing up as a I did in near poverty in government housing, violence and surviving aggression was part and parcel of my everyday life. The world seemed that way too. Turn on the TV and there were images of one more conflict somewhere on the planet. Even books on the subject of warfare claimed that we had been fighting each other since the dawn of mankind. Man really was an angry ape. Aggression, violence and warfare seemed to be part and parcel of the human condition. I grew up naturally believing that this was the case, my personal experience spoke to this and I felt I had no real choice but to learn how to kick ass and acquire the best survival skills available.


When I began teaching martial arts, especially with the experience (or trauma if you like) of how I grew up — along with the knowledge that man was inherently aggressive — this informed how I taught for the longest time. All that positive character building was all good and well for the movies, but in the real world, it was all meaningless. The world, and the people in it, especially men where inherently violent and one needed to make sure you knew how to deal with it when it came your way. All along though, I never forgot how in almost every single older martial art movie I watched was this common thread of the fighter as a noble warrior. It didn’t make sense why it was there, especially in light of what I have highlighted previously in this article. Building these positive character traits seemed to have no real purpose, outside of adding a noble flavour to a movie.


In fact, I have seen more than once especially in the reality based world of martial arts, instructor’s rallying against learning to fight for any other reason than for exactly that: to learn how to fight. Even going to the extent of berating anything that suggests otherwise. In the modern versions of combat sports, the goal is to win with the best fight tools available against the opponent, along with trash talking, psychological battles, all now being part of winning that battle. There doesn’t seem to be much talk about learning fight skills as a way to build the positive character traits that was so evident in those old martial arts movies I grew up on (and in newer movies, although that tends to now be reserved for the cartoons such as Kung Fu Panda). 


Are We Missing Something?

So what is it, is it simply idealised thinking as a way to add some flavour to a movie plot, or is there something to this theme that outside of learning fighting skills one should purposively seek to become more than one simply skilled in violence?

In order to answer this question, I believe we need to go back in time. A time before what we now view as modernity, beyond the birth of agriculture, to a time where for most of our existence on this planet was spent as hunter gatherers. Two things had to have occupied our hunter gatherers minds, that of survival and procreation. Learning to survive (our earliest martial skills) in a world that wanted to eat you at every corner was essential to being around long enough to continue ones family line.


Does this mean then that life for a hunter gatherer was as Thomas Hobbes argued “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? If that’s the case, then it must be correct that we were warring from the time we got here! It turns out that in fact this isn’t correct. We have been sold a lie about our hunter gatherer ancestors (and remember we are all descendants of hunter gatherers). Doug Fry and Patrik Söderberg, two anthropologists who specialise in the study of preagricultural societies, have noted that, “Nowhere in the actual data [on nomadic foragers] are found instances of lethal raiding for trophies or coups ” they continued by arguing that, “the worldwide archaeological evidence shows that war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence.”


This all changed and the archaeological record is “clear and unambiguous” on this with the advent of large scale agricultural settlements. It was at this time that, “War developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, slavery flourished, and the social position of women deteriorated.” The conclusion that arises out of this, and many other sources of research that agree is that civilisation was not responsible for reducing the ravages of human violence, but rather that civilisation itself is the source of most organised human violence. As Brian Ferguson professor of anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark notes, “We are not hard-wired for war. We learn it.”

The lifestyle of hunter gatherers was nothing like we have been sold it to be, as uncivilised, primal and animalistic.


In fact, hunter gatherers ‘work’ on average 20 hours a week. Here I am talking about hunter gatherers in the Australian outback or the Kalahari Desert, not exactly plush environments. What we are calling work here for hunter gatherer’s or what anthropologists count as their work are the very things we all escape to on vacation, like hunting and fishing. Hunter gatherers in fact have fairly varied diets, and they have far more leisure time than most of us do in the modern world. In addition their social structure is highly egalitarian. All the basic needs of all members of the band are fairly easily met. In other words, no one goes without what they need to live a fulfilled life.

When it came to how hunter gatherer’s operated as band, it was characterised by egalitarianism. There was obligatory sharing of minimal property and open access to the necessities of life.


When it came to leader’s in hunter gatherer societies, leaders were simply those whose opinions happen to be more highly regarded than the views of others at that moment. It wasn’t something that could be gained through power and dominance. Crucially in these communities short work was made of anyone trying to present themselves as superior to the rest. Even if you were admired by the other hunter gatherers you were never allowed to get away with self-aggrandising behaviour without losing status, and being called out.


As Edward Wilson, an influential biologist highlights in The Social Conquest of Earth:

“Hunter-gatherer bands and small agricultural villages are by and large egalitarian. Leadership status is granted individuals on the basis of intelligence and bravery, and through their ageing and death it is passed to others, whether close kin or not. Important decisions in egalitarian societies are made during communal feasts, festivals, and religious celebrations. Such is the practice of the few surviving hunter-gatherer bands, scattered in remote areas, mostly in South America, Africa, and Australia, and closest in organization to those prevailing over thousands of years prior to the Neolithic era.”


Dr. Robert Kelly has described hunter gatherer communities as “small, peaceful, nomadic bands, men and women with few possession[s] and who are equal in wealth, opportunity, and status.” Further in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunters and Gatherers, they highlight that hunter gatherers “have lived in relatively small groups, without centralised authority, standing armies, or bureaucratic systems….The evidence indicates that they have lived together surprisingly well, solving their problems among themselves largely without recourse to authority figures and without a particular propensity for violence. It was not the situation that Thomas Hobbes, the great seventeenth-century philosopher, described in a famous phrase as ‘the war of all against all’”


Martial Arts Meant Something Very Different to Our Ancestors

Back to my central observation in this article of the consistent theme of building positive character traits along with martial skills in movies.



Especially in light of the world as we experience it now, a place of aggression, violence, and constant conflict. Why waste time with making these positive character traits as important in these old martial art movies as the cool fight scenes?

It is clear when doing a closer reading of warrior traditions throughout history — from Bushido to Chivalry – there have always been a concerted effort to highlight the development of positive character traits, along with fighting skills. Even well respected modern martial arts teachers, from Funakoshi, Kano to Ueshiba have noted the need for the development of these positive character traits. It’s clearly not just in the older martial art based movies.


But, here’s what I think, much of the need to develop positive character traits through the experience of the martial arts is a left over from our hunter gatherer times. As this was how we lived for most of our time on the planet, it would be naive to think that how they lived, their philosophy of life would not go on to inform many of the experiences of living going forward in some way into modernity. To be fair, these might have been watered down, but they are leftovers of a time where things were done differently. 

If we take a page from our hunter gatherer ancestors, any martial skills they developed were not typically used for violence against other humans, but rather for defense (i.e., from animal predators) and or survival (i.e., hunting). Remember war didn’t exist. Using those skills for hyper-competitive success wouldn’t have likely been a focus either. Forms of rough and tumble play did have a place, but this was largely focused on building the skills to be a contributing member of the band.


It is only with the advent of agriculture, along with city states, that necessary armies arose to protect what was amassed. It is here where martial skills changed from purely self-defense and hunting to one of dominance, power and control. But just like we couldn’t get rid of the life lessons gleaned from mythology, so have lessons from our hunter gatherer ancestors remained, be that mostly distilled now into entertainment and those old martial arts movies. An echo from the past!


Looking at how hunter gatherers lived, and saw the world, one can see how martial prowess was more than simply about skill with violence. It was a way to show your worthiness to be part of the band. In keeping everyone safe, by ensuring no one went hungry, you served a purpose greater than oneself. It was about positive character traits both embodied, seen and acknowledged. It demonstrated bravery, commitment, integrity, accountability, and someone who could be counted on.

I now get what my karate instructor meant when speaking to a class of 6 year olds, myself included: “Karateka never abuse their skills. Karateka never throw the first punch. Karate is for self-defense only!” Maybe I am just fooling myself, and enamoured with an idealised view of my life’s passion, maybe its just getting older, and growing up. But when I am honest with myself, my attraction to martial arts was exactly because of the promise of those positive character traits I saw in those movies growing up. Learning martial arts was put forth as a promise to achieve this and I wanted it.


Then & Now

As many of my contemporaries, I bought into the whole “learn to fight, there’s no space or time for anything else”. Boy, was I wrong. I have come back to what I always wanted my martial arts to be about, a journey that leads to self mastery, and develops and refines those positive character traits. I have realised the way to achieve this, is to honour the past, to honour my ancestors.


My martial arts now has nothing to do with just about fighting, but rather as an embodied experience that leads to the development of self, and others that transcends violence, into a way of living in harmony. The realisation that the first ‘martial arts’ had nothing to do with what we take for granted now, surviving violent encounters with our own species, is a powerful one. It can reorient your entire practice, and in doing so, show up in your life in a way that is truly life transforming and meaningful all the way to your end of days here on planet Earth.


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