Growing up in the ’70’s I watched a lot of martial arts movies, which were all the rage at the time, and I became fascinated with martial arts.  I wanted to kick ass like Chuck Norris.  I eventually took up karate and discovered one of the funny ironies of life: by the time you’re actually able to kick ass like Chuck Norris, you’d rather not have to.

Another thing I learned is that the martial arts community is a fractious and opinionated lot and there is much in-fighting over which martial art is best, and within an art, which style is best.  I suspect that much of this contention arises in an attempt to draw students and earn a living in a small market.  In this regard it isn’t much different from science; I’ve seen earth scientists of various sub-disciplines partake in similar cock-fights over whose science is better, again, in an attempt to claw in the lion’s share of limited research dollars.

The origins of the martial arts is also a common subject of speculation.  The usual assumption is that the martial arts arose from a single common ancestor and spread from its country of origin around the world.  The usual assumption is that the Asian martial arts, at least, are derived from Kung Fu, and this is not an unreasonable assumption since Chinese culture was pervasive throughout Asia.  Karate, at least, is known to have evolved from Kung Fu, which was introduced to Okinawa.

Another interesting speculation is that the martial arts originated in ancient Greece.  Some urns depict fighters in stances similar to zenkutsu dachi and koksu dachi (front stance and back stance) of karate, and it has been suggested that the martial arts were introduced to Asia by the armies of Alexander the Great.  The ancient Greek fighting style, Pankration, is known to have been practiced as early as the 7th century B.C. and combined elements of wrestling and boxing.

Most cultures around the world have an unarmed fighting style – even knights of western Europe practiced a martial art similar to Jiu Jitsu – and it is a long stretch to assume that they have all derived from a single source.  It is more likely that many of the world’s unarmed fighting styles arose polyphyletically (independent of a common ancestor).   The fact that all martial arts use similar techniques and employ the same body mechanics to deliver them can be explained thusly: there is only one right way to do something.

In evolutionary parlance this is known as convergent evolution, which occurs when unrelated organisms develop analogous structures because they occupy similar niches.  This is why ichthyosaurs (reptiles) and dolphins (mammals) look so much alike despite being separated by nearly 90 million years.  Similarly as two, independently derived, martial arts refine their techniques to improve efficiency and effectiveness, they become increasingly similar to one another due to the constraints imposed by human structure and physiology.  This also puts to rest the question of which martial art is the ‘best.’

Several martial arts styles have sought inspiration from the animal kingdom in the development of their techniques.  The White Crane style of Kung Fu, for example, is based upon the characteristics of the Taiwanese crane.  But to find the real grand-daddy of martial arts we need to travel back in time more than 500 million years to the Middle Cambrian period.

As I have described in a previous post, in the summer of 2001 I was collecting fossils from the Middle Cambrian Deadwood Formation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Among the fossil brachiopods I collected were a large number whose shells were perforated by large, irregularly shaped holes.  I wondered if these holes might not have been made by predators breaking into the brachiopod shells to get at the soft tissues inside.  Since knowledge of predation in the Cambrian period is scant this proved to be a difficult, but worthwhile, study.

Perforated Brachiopod

These perforations looked very similar to those on modern gastropod shells that were attacked by stomatopods, more commonly known as mantis shrimp.  Mantis shrimp are crustaceans characterized by large, raptorial forelimbs, which they use for attacking prey.  They can deliver either a smashing strike with their armoured forelimb, or a piercing strike with the tips of their appendages.

Mantis Shrimp

The forelimb strike of the mantis shrimp is the fastest of all known animal movements and can be completed in less than 5 milliseconds underwater.  It hits with a percussive force equal to a .22 calibre bullet; stomatopods have been known to shatter aquarium glass, and their strike is devastating to prey species.  Stomatopods are remarkably pugnacious animals and frequently spar with one another; it is not advisable to keep two together in the same aquarium as one will usually kill the other.

The following illustration depicts a stomatopod executing both a smashing and a piercing strike from the ready position:

Forelimb Strike (drawing by Carrie Allen)

These forelimb strikes bear an uncanny similarity to the rising elbow strike (age empi uchi) and spear hand strike (nukite) of karate.  The photograph below shows Sensei Jerry Marr (7th Dan) demonstrating age empi uchi on Eugene Fillion (3rd Dan):

Rising elbow strike

There is a fossil organism from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park, called Yohoia tenuis, that bears strong resemblance to the modern stomatopod, including forelimbs that are ‘strikingly’ similar to those of the mantis shrimp.  It is possible that Yohoia might have been the predator responsible for knocking big holes in the shells of my brachiopods.  The following illustration is an artistic interpretation of how Yohoia might have performed both smashing and piercing attacks, compared with the similar stomatopod strike:

Yohoia strike (drawing by Carrie Allen)

It is fascinating that techniques practiced in modern karate were perfected during the early diversification of multicellular life, known as the Cambrian Explosion, half a billion years ago.  It also goes to show that, biomechanically speaking, there is only one ‘right’ way to do something and that, given enough time, every organism will figure it out.  This gives me hope that maybe someday even I will figure it out.  Then I’ll finally be able to kick ass like Chuck Norris.