I reckon you could say the world's oldest martial art is swinging a club at someones head. The first cave dude who realized big stick + extreme force = your ass whooped really had the upper hand.
However, the first organized martial art on record dates back with a history spanning over 3,000 years and is called Kalaripayattu. The very first mention of the Kerala martial art existence comes from the third century AD Tamil literature. However, it was not until the eleventh century that Kalaripayattu took the form we know today
കളരിപ്പയറ്റ് (Kalaripayattu) – from Malayalam - Kalari (school) payattu (fight).
It is said to have originated in the Malabar region on the southwestern coast of India. The word Kalaripayattu translates to "Practice in the arts of the battlefield."
Kung fu has the Shaolin monks; judo has Jigoro Kano, Shotokan karate has Gichin Funakoshi. If kalaripayattu ever had a singular human or group who spearheaded its development into a systemized art, that name has been lost to time. It might have been multiple people or given by a god, but we won't ever know.
The combat techniques of the Sangam period (600 BCE - 300 CE) were the earliest precursors to Kalaripayattu. Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training in target practice, and horse or elephant riding. They specialized in one or more of the important weapons of the period including the spear (vel), sword (val), shield (kedaham), and bow and arrow (vil ambu) but war wasn't organized or held together by fighting methods at that point.
You pretty much just practiced smoking dudes.
Other theories postulate that certain tribal groups inhabiting ancient Kerala founded Kalaripayattu in order to defend themselves against threats from similar groups.
Because of its ancient roots, kalaripayattu is sometimes known as the “mother of all martial arts.” This nickname is probably an exaggeration; however, if you look closely at most Asian arts, you’ll find traces of kalaripayattu there and it is the first documented structured art.
Now, even though it might be the "oldest" it's not exactly what we think of when we picture martial arts.
The training begins with an oil massage of the entire body until it is agile and supple.
Feats like chattom (jumping), ottam (running) and marichil (somersault) are also integral parts of the art form. There are also lessons in using weapons like swords, daggers, spears, maces, and bows and arrows.
Warriors trained in Kalaripayattu would use very light, and basic body armor, as it was difficult to maintain flexibility and mobility while in heavy armor. Unlike in other parts of India, warriors in Kerala belonged to all castes and religions. Women in Keralite society also underwent training in Kalaripayattu, and still do so to this day.
The sad truth is, despite Kalarippayattu being the oldest martial art it has never evolved over time, whereas modern martial arts are ever evolving and their moves and techniques are always updated to the current life scenario. When people think of practical martial art, they typically mean direct punches and kicks.
The more "evolved" version is now called Gatka.
The golden age of Kalaripayattu ended in the eighteenth century with the arrival of the British. They brought firearm, the use of which meant that knowledge of martial arts was no longer necessary. Furthermore, the british banned the practice of Kalaripayattu what as a result, almost eradicated the martial art and its traditions.
Kalaripayattu includes both: semi-contact & full-contact movements. It means you can either knock off your opponent from a distance or submission movement. Now, I've yet to see a video of this actually occurring the same way you'd see MMA, wrestling, or other submission/contact art.
A lot of it is what appears to look almost like a performance routine and you can tell the violence aspect has been removed because I doubt the dudes training want to actually behead their training partners. Some of the strikes are actually just flat-out slaps.
Think ancient bollywood themed WWE. We have a whole lot of acrobatics and rehearsed attacks.
But overall the act of Kalarippayattu is based on spiritual and physical purpose VS actual war. It focuses on flexibility, agility, weaponry, Yoga, hand to hand combat and Ayurveda.
-Kettukari – long stick – should be slightly longer than the user's height.
-Ceruvadi – short stick
-The Otta – curved stick
-Kathi – a traditional Keralian dagger with a handle made of deer antlers
-Vettukathi – Tamil machete
-Valum and Curika – swords
-Valum Parichayum – sword and shield, the most traditional weapon, symbol of Kalaripayattu
-Kuntham – Spear
-Maru – axe
-Urumi – a flexible sword - used in many Indian martial arts; also the last weapon to learn because an inexperienced user could have cut his head off. Its users wrap the sword around the waist.
This image is an example of the alters set up in place of Kalarippayattu practice. Kalaripayattu is practiced in a special building called kalari.
Before going down to the kalari, you should take off your shoes (much like modern bjj/judo studios) and step down into a rectangular pit with dimensions of 12 x 6.5 meters. The bottom was encircled by clay walls and these on the other hand were strengthened with wooden beams.
If you're interested in what this art looks like when practiced today have a look at this video: