Surfing has existed in its various forms for centuries. Ancient records of surfing show that riding waves has been around pretty much since humans started venturing into the ocean. So who invented surfing?
Surfing’s roots are mainly traced back to ancient Peru, Polynesia and Hawaii. What was probably started by fishermen turned into an important religious practice, and then one of the most popular sports across the world.
When Was Surfing Invented?
Some of the earliest traces of surfing go back to 12th century Polynesia. While there’s no exact date as to when the first waves were ridden, ancient cave paintings have been discovered that clearly depict surfing.
The ancient cultures of Peru also have early records of surfing that date back to 200 CE. Captain James Cook recorded one of the earliest accounts of surfing in 1778. He watched surfers in Tahiti ride waves on wooden planks. However, surfing in Polynesian culture seems to have been around for much longer than this.
Who Invented Surfing?
Since humans started swimming in the ocean, they have likely been surfing too. Here is a breakdown of the different countries that invented surfing and gradually turned it into the sport we know today.
According to archaeological evidence, the ancient cultures of Peru started surfing up to 5000 years ago. The pre-Inca Moche culture would use little reed boats, called caballito de totora, to ride waves.
Archaeological evidence dates this activity back to around 200 CE. Today, these little boats are still used by fishermen. A Jesuit missionary, José de Acosta, wrote about the early Inca surfing in 1590.
Surfing was an important part of ancient Polynesian culture. Ancient Polynesians called surfing heʻe nalu, which translates to “wave sliding”. This type of ancient surfing held a religious significance, where it was considered a way of life.
Traditionally, the chief was the best surfer with the best board. Surfing allowed ancient Polynesians to gain prestige, and it was something that warriors and the ruling class would take very seriously.
Early forms of surfing were also recorded in Samoa and Tonga. Samoans called surf riding fa’ase’e or se’egalu. The late Tongan king, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, was known to be an expert surfer in his youth. The ancient Polynesians brought surfing to Hawaii, where it really started taking off in popularity.
Surfing was deeply ingrained in Ancient Hawaiian culture. Surfing was an art, and ancient Hawaiians would regularly pray to the gods asking them to deliver surf.
Three different types of surfboards were used in ancient Hawaii. These were the ‘olo (thick in the middle and thin at the edges), the kiko’o (a 12 – 18ft board), and the alaia (around 9ft).
The most skilled surfers were chiefs and warriors, and mastering surfing was a way for ancient Hawaiians to gain great respect. Some of the earliest surfing sites include Kahaluʻu Bay and Holualoa Bay.
Surfing in the Modern World
After the Western world explored and colonized the Pacific, the ancient art of surfing started disappearing. However, when Waikiki became a tourist destination, the sport started to gain a new level of popularity.
Americans visiting Waikiki would see the locals occasionally surfing, and so they tried it out. Some famous accounts of early American surfers include Mark Twain and Jack London. This was in 1866 and 1907 respectively.
The first modern organization to promote surfing was started in 1908 when Alexander Hume Ford founded the Outrigger Canoe and Surfing Club. Local Hawaiians started their own surfing club called Hui Nalu in 1911.
As tourism to Hawaii increased, more and more people discovered surfing and started talking about it around the world. Tommy Walker brought surfing to Australia in 1910, when he came back from a trip to Waikiki beach with a 10ft surfboard. John Wrightson was the first British surfer, after being taught by two Hawaiian students in Yorkshire in 1890.
Throughout the 20th century, surfing became more widely popularized as Hawaiians spread surfing around the world. New types of surfboards developed, and professional surf contests started in 1975.
While we have no absolute timeline of when surfing started and who invented surfing, we know that it played an important role in ancient Polynesian and Hawaiian culture. It was the Hawaiian wave riders who introduced surfing to the world, and turned it into the sport we know it today.
While surfing has taken many different forms, it seems that as long as there have been waves, there have been surfers trying to ride them.