Fighting arts in the 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 freestyle form in silat. While these aborigines retained their tribal way of life, the Indo-Malay diaspora instead based their culture on India and China. By adopting the Indian faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism, their social structure became more organised. Evidence shows that silat was influenced by both Indian and Chinese martial arts. Many of the region's medicinal practices and weapons originated in either India or China, and silat's thigh-slapping actions are reminiscent of Hindu wrestling. The martial arts practiced by the Chinese community of the Malay Arhipelago are referred to as kuntao.
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 5th or 6th century, pre-determined sets are said to have been introduced by the Mahayana Buddhist monk Bodhidharma who came from India to Southeast Asia via the Sumatra-based kingdom of Srivijaya in Palembang. Through this connection, silat is also used as a method of spiritual training in addition to self-defense.
Silat was used by the defence forces of kingdoms such as Chi Tu (present-day Kelantan, Malaysia), Langkasuka (Kedah, Malaysia), Champa (south Vietnam), Srivijaya (Sumatra, Indonesia), Beruas (Perak, Malaysia), Melaka (Malaysia), Makasar (Sulawesi, Indonesia), Aceh (Indonesia), Majapahit (Java, Indonesia), Gangga Negara (Perak, Malaysia), Pattani (Thailand) and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Except for generals and royalty, Indo-Malay warriors wore minimal armour, if any at all. A rattan shield, or a breastplate at most, was the only protective gear available to the average soldier. This may have been one of the reasons why the older styles relied more on agility than they do today. Despite the Hindu caste system which held sway in ancient times, 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 15th century. The number of Japanese people travelling the region increased after the Battle of Sekigahara. By the early 17th century 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 the Ayutthaya Kingdom was attacked by the Burmese. Silat shares many similarities with Okinawan karate as well as the throws and stances of weapon-based Japanese martial arts which probably date back to this time. Trade with Japan ended when the country went into self-imposed isolation but resumed during the Meiji era, during which time certain areas of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore became home to a small Japanese population. After the Occupation of Japan, some silat masters incorporated the katana into their styles.
Since the Islamisation movement of the 1980s and 90s, there have been attempts to make silat more compliant with Islamic principles. It is now illegal for Muslim practitioners in Malaysia to chant mantera, bow to idols, practice traditional meditation, or attempt to acquire supernatural powers. This has given rise to various misconceptions that silat is inherently Muslim or can only be practiced by followers of the Islamic faith. In actuality silat has existed long before Islam was introduced to Southeast Asia and is still practiced by non-Muslims. The Hindu-Buddhist and animistic roots of the art were never eradicated, and remain very evident even among Muslim practitioners of traditional styles. Some of these old methods have been lost after silat masters in pre-dominantly Muslim areas could no longer teach them, but others still endure among conservative training schools in Indonesia and Thailand.