The Origins of Surfing

The Peru vs Polynesia debate


A popular topic of debate within the surf community is where the practice of surfing actually originated. Certainly the majority of surfers are automatically drawn to the idea that since surfing was first documented by English explorers in Hawaii, in 1769, that it was founded there too. This might not be the case. 


The idea that surfing was actually founded in Peru stems from their ancient practice of riding their traditional reed boats – caballitos de totora – back to shore after having gone fishing. This is backed by 3500 to 4000 year old ceramics, textiles and iconography that depict members of the Mochica and Chimu tribes riding waves. Riding their boats evolved from necessity to sport and leisure around 1200 years ago when the ancient Peruvians began to race the boats in the surf, holding competitions to see who could reach the island of Guañape first. 


Historians were skeptical of the theory that it was in fact the Peruvians who introduced the practice of riding the surf to the Polynesians as they doubted whether their basic reed crafts would have been able to actually make the journey across the pacific.


The Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl decided to attempt the journey himself. In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed in an accurate traditional Peruvian reed boat, the Kon-Tiki, all the way to the Raroia atoll in Polynesia, exhibiting how it was indeed possible for the ancient Peruvians to have made the journey. This entertained the idea that it was in fact the ancient Peruvians introduced the sport of surfing to Polynesians and Hawaiians. 


However, since neither of the ancient civilizations of Peru or Hawaii had written languages, it is impossible the claim which founded the sport of surfing first. 


Hawaiian/Polynesian


Though the concept of riding waves may or may not have originated in South America, the modern practice of standing upright on planks certainly originated in Polynesia and more specifically, Hawaii. While the Peruvians opted for reed vessels, the Polynesians surfed on boards carved from logs and trees. 


Surfing was an integral part of society and spirituality in pre-colonial Hawaii. Life there was dictated by a set of taboos known as Kapu, which essentially determined what you could and couldn’t do based on your social standing. 


The most skilled surfers gained respect within society and in some cases, the surfer that was able to ride the largest wave would actually become Chief of their tribe. Social standing also decided where and when you were allowed to surf. Waimea bay, for example, was exclusive to the Hawaiian ruling class, the Ali’i. 


Similarly, certain surfboards were reserved for certain people. Essentially the larger the board, the fewer people were allowed to ride them. The majority of Hawaiians rode Alaia boards while only Chieftains were allowed to ride the extremely long Olo boards. 


The process of carving the Hawaiian surfboard was an extremely spiritual process. The Hawaiians would make numerous offerings when selecting the right tree to carve, they would pray to various gods and goddesses for surf and they would give thanks in the case of surviving a dangerous wipeout. 


Once a year, the barriers of rank and society were broken in a festival to celebrate the ancient god, Lono. The festival was one of the few exceptions to the Kapu that normally controlled the Hawaiian people when anybody was allowed to surf wherever they pleased. 

 

It was during one of these festivals in 1778  when James Cook came to Hawaii and watched the islanders surfing together. The Hawaiians treated these strangers as gods, believing that Cook and his crew, were the form that Lono had chosen to appear to them.  Cook was welcomed as such until one of his crewmembers died which revealed to the islanders that Cook and his men were mere mortals. This was the first instance of colonial contact from Europe.


Over the coming years, missionaries would come convert the Hawaiians from Kapu to Christianity, declaring surfing to be a sin. This was the end of surfing in its religious significance. However, thanks to a Hawaiian revival of surfing as a sport in the late 19th and early 20th century, surfing lives on today.