Illuminating the Fighting History of Ancient Africa

Historians often reduce the history of African sports to the practices of ancient Egyptians, but fighting sports are found in nearly every tribal community in the African continent.
September 20, 2016, 5:37pm

In the history of the scholarship of history, we, as academics, have privileged cultures with writing, even though advanced societies existed that relied on oral tradition rather than the written word. Excavating, both metaphorically and physically, the history of a particular culture group requires looking into all of the artifacts that articulate the morays of that society. Art and sculpture, architecture and tombs, songs and dancing and even fighting sports can provide historians with a depiction of a society that is rich and intricate and interesting. The Greeks may have written about their ancient fighting sports, but many African tribes and countries live their history as their martial arts traditions have passed on, through oral history, rituals, and the actual arts themselves, through hundreds of generations.

The historic overview of sports on the African continent has been greatly skewed by the focus on Egypt. Egypt, with its pharaohs and pyramids and connection with the Roman empire, has garnered far more attention by Westerners than the remaining majority of the continent. The Victorian era obsessions with the country, and the subsequent proliferation of gentleman Egyptologists meant that Egypt's history subsumed that of the rest of the continent. Egypt was an easier study for most Westerners, and one that reflected on their own ancient roots, since the country sat at the junction of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and functioned as one of the most powerful outposts of the Roman Empire. If Egypt was the seat of ancient culture, then historians had no issue delineating the history of ideas and cultural practices to its roots. But this reduction discounts the numerous societies that existed at the same time as the Egyptian empire—societies that had their own languages, narratives, and cultural practices.

In navigating the history of Africa, in particular sub-Saharan Africa, one must contend with the biases of those individuals, primarily Westerners, who viewed the indigenous populations as Other. Read accounts from Sir Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone, or even Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, to see how racism permeated the writings of these early 'explorers' of the African continent. Additionally, the non-Egypt countries of Africa were where so many slave-holding countries attained their slaves, and there is no better way to dehumanize a group than to erase or ignore its history. But Africa, a tremendously vast continent that is home to numerous countries, states, cities, villages, camps, and tribes, has a history of fighting sports that is not limited to the story of Egypt. Like the Greeks and the Romans, the empty-hand combat sports of striking and grappling permeated nearly every group, large and small, in ancient Africa, and stick fighting, a sport not necessarily particular to ancient Africa (many Southeast Asian traditions include stick fighting, as does some European ancient cultures), was of tremendous importance in these lands where carrying a stick could mean the difference in life or death.


In his book, Fighting for Honor: The history of African Martial Arts in the Atlantic, Dr. Thomas Desch-Obi notes that the early fighting sports historians incorrectly traced African wrestling styles to Egypt's Beni Hasan wrestling system. However, linguistic history and the archaeological evidence of various non-Egyptian African populations demonstrate to modern historians that wrestling was widespread in almost all West African groups, and "a cultural trait of the Niger-Congo-speaking peoples." Fighting sports are found in nearly every tribal community in the African continent, but every group practiced and lived their martial art differently. The etiology of most of these fighting sports is rooted in the ludic function of using sport to practice for combat. In this way, fighting arts are remembered and shared as a means of protection and bringing glory to the tribe through successful application of the fighting sport's particular style. In other words, most African fighting arts were a direct corollary to combat. However, they also served a hierarchical function in many societies. In Egypt, wrestling contests bolstered the 'godliness' of the Pharaoh, and in many of the smaller communities, boys became men through their victories in wrestling.

Wrestling was Egypt's most popular sport, at least, so the artwork of the time depicted. From 3000 to 1100 B.C.E., most sporting artwork centered around wrestling. The amazing artwork found in the Egyptian city of Beni Hasan shows over 400 wrestling scenes, laid out to show a sequence of the progression of a wrestling match. This artwork, dating to 2000 B.C.E. contains images of wrestlers on the ground, attacking the arms and legs, as well as throwing each other to the ground. While the Greek system of ancient wrestling focused more on throws and pins, the Egyptians appeared to do far more ground submissions.

Wrestling paintings in tomb 15 at Beni Hassan (Image via Wikimedia commons)

There is no written account of wrestling during this period, so the exact scoring process is unknown. But one piece of artwork from twelfth century B.C.E. shows one wrestler choking another, and an inscription underneath reads, "Take care! You are in the presence of Pharaoh," which indicates that choking may have been illegal at the time. However, earlier depictions show choking as part of the Egyptian wrestling system, so it was either outlawed at the time of this particular artwork, or perhaps it was gauche to choke an opponent in front of Pharaoh.

In Egyptian pictographs depicting the exploits of Ramses III, the pharaoh is shown wrestling with foreigners and subsequently vanquishing them. These images serve to buttress the reputation of Ramses and Egypt as a whole, but they may have been more propaganda than reality. Nubian wrestlers had a dynamic of fighting similar to today's freestyle wrestling, explains Steve Craig in Sports and Games of the Ancients. Egyptians seemed to defined any darker-skinned Africans as "Nubians," although there is currently a group of people known as the Nuba in Sudan who continue to have their own sport of wrestling which includes regular competitions that are community events featuring food, dancing, and wrestling matches.

Ramses III (Image via Wikimedia commons)

The Nuba of Sudan wrestled in their home territory and in Egypt. Egyptian engravings showed the Pharaoh defeating Nubian wrestlers, which historians believe to be more a part of the Pharaoh's propaganda machine than his actual ability to win over the Nubians. The Nuba were, in fact, accomplished wrestlers, although a young man's competitive career would end upon his marriage. Nuba fighters continue to practice the sports of their ancestors, and though oral histories and martial arts tradition, most scholars believe that the modern iteration of Nuba's wrestling provides a general view into the ancient sport. Boys and young men train outside of their village in camps and compete at community festivals, covered in white ash as a symbol of strength. Unfortunately, the Nuba believe that sex incapacitates fighters; thus a young man's wrestling career ends fairly early in his life in order for him to start a family. Nuba's women also wrestled once a year in conjunction with the harvest reaping. According to Steve Craig, a particularly skilled woman could win acclaim from her community that sometimes included marriage, which would subsequently end both her and her husband's career. These practices of the modern Nuba culture are considered to be the same, or at least, incredibly similar, to the traditions of their ancestors thousands of years in the past.

Chinua Achebe's seminal novel, Things Fall Apart, include a description of a grappling contest in Nigeria in which young men competed for their village while the entire community sang and danced to ceremonial drumming. Achebe's novel focuses on the Igbo people (formerly referred to as Ibo), who had two forms of wrestling: the general of mgba and the ebenebe, which included ankle picks. Early Western ethnographers attempted to define the Igbo's wrestling in comparison to the wrestling styles of their own community, but most were unfamiliar with Greco-Roman or Lancashire wrestling, so their comparisons do not provide sufficient descriptions. Desch-Obi notes that one thing that distinguished the Igbo's wrestling styles from that of other ancient communities in their area was that the mgba allowed reaping, hooking, and sweeping with the feet, while their neighbors, the Hausa "could use his feet in order to help him stay erect, but [could not] use them to hook, sweep, or lift up an opponent."

The Hausa of Northern Nigeria have two traditional fighting sports, the striking art of dambe and the kokawa, a wrestling style. Both arts continue to be practiced today, but their history, passed down through generations of fighters, is embodied through the unique styles and the music that accompanies it. Like many fighting arts to arise out of tribal cultures in Africa, the kokawa fighters credit their ancestors and the spirits of the earth for their athletic prowess. In 1911, Nigerian folklorist Elphinstone Dayrell published Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria, a collection of folktales passed down orally in the tribal communities. One story included the following narrative of a wrestler:

The Water Ju Ju told the king's son, who had become very strong, and was very like to his father in appearance, that he should go and wrestle, and that no one would be able to stand up before him….

On the day of the match the Water Ju Ju told the king's son that he need not be in the least afraid, and that his Ju Ju was so powerful, that even the strongest and best wrestlers in the country would not be able to stand up against him for even a few minutes. All the people of the country came to see the great contest, to the winner of which the king had promised to present prizes of cloth and money, and all the strongest men came. When they saw the king's son, whom nobody knew, they laughed and said, "Who is this small boy? He can have no chance against us." But when they came to wrestle, they very soon found that they were no match for him."

The most prolific African wrestling tradition is the Senegalese art of laamb, which dates back thousands of years into the tribe's history and stretches from the Senegal River to the Kwanza River. It is often compared to Greco-Roman wrestling—as most wrestling styles are to those not necessarily fluent in the nuances of grappling. In laamb, the match ends when one fighter puts his opponent on the ground. In Senegal, laamb has become tremendously big business, as SB Nation revealed in a fascinating 2013 article on the current state of the sport. Laamb was historically open for women to compete in, and according to Isabelle Sambou, women were not restricted from competing until the sport left the tribe and became institutionalized in the 20th century (this is a common methodology in marginalizing women in sport).

However, not every ancient wrestling art in Africa has sought to exclude women in modern times. The Kel Faduy tribe of the Taureg people in south-central Sahara continue the ancient tradition of celebrating female wrestlers with a ritual contest to honor the coming-of-age with the birth of a woman's first child. The village women compete in fierce wrestling matches that demonstrate female power rather than appeal to the men in the audience. Sometimes women in their 70's will wrestle with very young women, and all matches are typically proceeded by boasting. While many other African traditions include female wrestling, the Kel Faduy are unique in that their modern culture is Muslim, yet they continue to tradition of their ancestors, providing women with an opportunity to compete and celebrate female power.

The Khoikhoi of Southwest Africa practiced a type of no-holds-barred wrestling that, according to Thomas Green, looked much more like the Greek pankration than catch-as-catch-can wrestling. The line between grapping and striking was not always as clear in African fighting sports as in the Greek separate arts of boxing and wrestling. And in many of the African boxing styles, punching was not the only striking that was allowable.


The Hausa of Nigeria had a complete striking system in addition to their wrestling style. Dambe is one of the more unique forms of traditional boxing in that the fighters primarily only use their power-hand to strike and their lead hand to defend themselves. This guard, according to martial arts historian Thomas Green, is often referred to as the speak and the shield. The striking spear hand is wrapped in cloth (kara) and bound in a "knotted cord called a zare." Dambe fighters can also kick, but their primary weapon is that rear hand, always ready to deliver a heavy, club-style blow while using their lead hand to parry their opponent's 'shield' hand. Traditionally, dambe boxers wore loin-cloths and sometimes clutched amulets and other charms in their hands, given to them by tribal medicine-man. A resurgence in dambe boxing in modern Nigeria has modernized the sport, and amateur fighters are no longer allowed to carry or wear charms on their bodies.

The ancient Kunene people of Namibia created a fighting system that was replicated in other communities in the surrounding areas that consisted of two parts, the engolo and the kandeka. The kandeka consisted of stick-fighting and slap-boxing, both of which were used to train boys and young men in combat. The engolo was a much more brutal hand-to-hand fighting system that originated out of the need to protect the tribe against raids from other tribes.

Slap-boxing was also a pastime of young men in the villages, and indeed there would be matches in ritual displays to lead up to the more popular art of engolo. Songs would be played and a young man would step into the center of the circle and raise his open hands, challenging all who were present. According to Desch-Obi, another young man would join the circle, answering the challenge. Slap-boxing matches consisted primarily of open-hand strikes to the face and body, as well as footwork and head movement to dodge the blows. The fight would continue until one of the boys gave up, and then another challenger would come in for his turn to spar with the champion. The kandeka developed coordination in young men and provided them with an outlet in which they could hone their skills with a stick and learn range for empty-hand striking. Slap-boxing was a safe way for boys to practice combat strategies before engaging in the harder prospect of engolo.

Engolo is an acrobatic fighting that was used as sport and duel, for contest and combat. In the realm of contest, engolo provided the young men with an opportunity to test their skills in preparation for deadlier combat in the future. The 'sport' version of engolo primarily used kicks, which were often thrown from an inverted position where the fighters' hand or hands touched the ground while the kick was thrown. In the combat version, however, head butts and knee strikes became part of the fighting protocol. According to Dr. Desch-Obi, the Kunene believe that engolo is "a sacred pastime handed down from the ancestors." The cosmology of ancestor worship, embodied in the ludic enactment of engolo, made the place space where matches took place, elola/ovahkelela—the engolo circle, a sacred space. Linguistically, engolo may be tied to the zebra (ongolo), a highly regarded animal which also uses kicks to defend itself or attack a rival. The engolo requires speed and agility and the zebra is, in Kunene culture, a symbol of nimbleness. Tribal members became engolo masters through a sacred ritual (okukwatelela). A line was drawn across the fighter's face using white powder (ompeyu), which Dr. Desch-Obi explains, symbolizes the portal to the ancestor realm.

When slaves were taken to Brazil by Portuguese slave traders, engolo became the basis for capoeira, the Brazilian fighting system hidden in dance by the slave population. The impact of the African diaspora will be explored in a future article, but suffice it so say that there are numerous connections between ancient African fighting sports and the martial arts that arose in slave-holding countries hundreds and even thousands of years later.


Stick-fighting was an important sport in Egypt. Artwork from fourteenth century B.C.E. Thebes shows two stick-fighters striking each other with sticks that included a hand-wrap and wearing guards on their non-striking arm. Other artwork from the same period includes fighters with sticks in each of their hands, revealing that some Egyptian stick-fighting competitions were single-stick and others were double. Matches were judged by officials, and according to historian Nigel Crowther, "one could achieve victory either through submission, or by amassing a greater number of hits." In addition to artistic depictions of stick-fighting, the Ramesseum Papyrus, dated to 1991 B.C.E., describes two priests in a double-stick competition. Ancient stick-fighting in Egypt was tied to the cult of Osiris and in that same Ramesseum Papyrus, the offspring of his son, Horus, tells the offspring of Seth, who apparently killed Osiris, "Lift to the sky your sticks, by which your backs are like those of wandering goats."

Earlier depictions of stick-fighting occur in the Old Kingdom (roughly 2900-2150 B.C.E.) 'fisherman jousting,' in which fishermen on the Nile would 'joust' with the long poles used to propel their reed boats. Games historian Steve Craig explains that these 'battles' "probably resulted out of either good-natured horseplay or to maintain territorial supremacy in a particularly fertile fishing area."

The Nuba of Sudan also competed in stick-fighting and a fourteenth century B.C.E. engraving shows Nubian wrestlers competing while stick-fighters stand off to one side, clearly, according to combat sports historian Michael Poliakoff, preparing to engage in combat themselves. Additionally, a relief of Ramses III from approximately 2,000 B.C.E. includes depictions of Egyptians competing in stick-fighting with 'Nubian' fighters, although, as previously mentioned, the Egyptians constituted any darker-skinned populace as Nubian, not just men from Nuba.

The stick-fighting aspect of the Kunene's kandeka system trained young boys to use weapons to fight humans, and to protect their livestock from predators. The sticks were two feet long, and one-inch in diameter at one end, and approximately two inches in diameter at the handle. Small children would practice stick-fighting in order to hone their skills in combat and to become proficient at protecting cattle, the prize of their tribe, from other men or from hunting animals.

The continent of Africa, stretching from the cradle of humanity in the south to the Delta Valley, contains so many cultures and communities, all with their own traditions and rituals, that it would be foolish to claim to cover the ancient history of them all in one article. Unlike Greek martial arts history, which is carefully outlined by philosophers, poets, and historians, the immense African fighting sports history is not found in the written word, but rather in the continued traditions of the people who occupy those places today. And in fact, many traditions of African fighting sports are no longer contained just on that continent because so many of those people were displaced due to slavery, war, and exile. Cultural geographers argue that history and culture is rooted in place, but that is not necessarily the case. Just as the written word is not the only mode of documenting narrative, history does not just exist in place, but in people.