Fighting arts in the Malay Peninsula and Malay Archipelago arose out of hunting methods and military training by the region's native inhabitants. The descendents of former headhunters still perform ancient wardances which are considered the precursor of the tari (freestyle form) in silat. While these aborigines retained their tribal way of life, the Indon-Malay diaspora instead based their culture on China and India. By adopting the Indian faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism, their social structure became more organised. Upper-class nobles from Southeast Asia would often send their children to study in one of the two countries, and evidence shows that silat was influenced by both Indian and Chinese martial arts. Many of the region's weapons originated in either China or India and silat's thigh-slapping actions are reminiscent of Hindu wrestling.
Although numerous myths attempt to explain the institutionalisation of silat, most of them concern only a specific style. The earliest evidence of silat taught in its present form is found in Sumatra where, according to local legend, a woman based her combat system on the movements of animals that she had seen fighting. Masters still believe that the first styles of silat were created by observing animals, and these styles were probably derived from animal-based Indian martial arts. In the fifth or sixth century, pre-determined sets are said to have been introduced by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma who came from India to Southeast Asia via the Sumatra-based kingdom of Palembang. Through this connection, silat is also used as a method of spiritual training in addition to self-defense. It was eventually used by the defence forces of Langkasuka, Champa, Srivijaya, Beruas, Melaka, Makassar, Aceh, Majapahit, Gangga Negara, Pattani and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia. However, silat was never confined to any particular social class or gender but was practiced by all without restrictions. Even today, it is often taught in families who have inherited cultural traditions such as woodcarving, dance, herbalism or the playing of musical instruments.
Southeast Asian trade had already extended into Okinawa and Japan by the 1400s. The number of Japanese people travelling the region increased after the Battle Of Sekigahara. By the early 1600s there were small Japanese communities living and trading in Indochina. Some arrived with the official red seal ships while others were warriors and pirates from the losing side of the Sekigahara war. Although mostly confined to Siam, some Japanese escaped to Cambodia and Indonesia after Ayutthaya was attacked by the Burmese. Silat shares many similarities with Okinawan karate as well as the throws and stances of Japanese martial arts which may date back to this time, but whether Japanese fighting systems had a stronger influence on silat or vice-versa is unclear. Trade with Japan ended when the country went into self-imposed isolation but resumed during the Meiji era, during which time certain areas such as Penang and Singapore became home to a small Japanese population. After the Japanese Occupation, some silat masters incorporated the katana into their styles. The weapon is still used in some systems today although its application has little relation to actual Japanese kenjutsu.
Except for generals and royalty, warriors in Malaysia and Indonesia wore minimal armour. A rattan shield, or a breastplate at most, was the only protective gear available to the average soldier. The older forms of silat consequently relied more on agility than they do today. During the colonial era when the western system of law enforcement was introduced, police officers who practiced silat emphasised trapping and joint locks so as to disable criminals without killing or injuring them unnecessarily. The styles created during this period are the most widespread today. Malaysians and Indonesians would later use silat to liberate themselves from foreign authorities. Post-independence, the art spread out from Asia and into Europe. Silat is now included in competitions, particularly during the Southeast Asian Games. Since the Islamisation movement of the 1980s and 90s, there have been attempts to combine silat with foreign styles such as the Muslim Chinese martial arts. To make it more compliant with Islamic principles, it is now illegal for Muslim practitioners in Malaysia to chant mantra, bow to idols or practice traditional meditation and deep breathing. Some of these old methods have been lost after silat masters could no longer teach them, but others still endure among conservative silat schools in Indonesia and Thailand.