Although it depends on how much one knows about martial arts, for the average person on the street its quite likely that if asked where martial arts come from they’ll say some place in East Asia like Japan, China, or Korea. While it’s true that some of the most popular and successful martial arts do hail from that region asking somewhere where martial arts comes from originally is a bit like asking someone where food comes from. Going far back in human history, survival was a daily challenge unlike it is today. Rival tribes warred with one another and hunting was often the main way of obtaining food. In nearly every culture around the world there was some form of warfare or hunting and every culture developed sports to develop the necessary skills.
In the same way that I, and many others like me, alway enjoy eating local food during trips abroad because one gets to learn a bit about the culture, I always like to go on week-long martial arts courses in martial arts native to the country I’m visiting. Martial arts have evolved over the years and new schools pop up every now and again and sometimes they are short-lived and other times they make a lasting impression on the martial arts community. For me however what really helps me learn about a culture is learning the oldest, most ancient martial art that was practised in the region.
If one is likely enough to be a country that has martial arts that were practised more or less the same way for two thousand years (India and China come quickly to mind), I feel like I’m getting a better sense of the country’s history. What was it like, for example, to be a foot solider in an Indian army some 3000 years ago? Well, specific forms of yoga evolved from martial arts and by doing yoga I can get a feel for what it was like for a solider to train and fight so long ago.
There are countless aways to approach a new country or culture in order to get a better understanding of it, but for me there will always be a special connection with a culture and its martial arts.