Who Invented Surfing and When Was It Invented?

professional surfer riding waves

There’s a long history of great stories that tell the tale of surfing’s existence. Knowing surfing history can give you a greater appreciation for how far the sport has come. So, who invented surfing? and when and what year did this water sport go into fruition.

The Surf Invention Debate

As with most sports, there’s a debate about who exactly invented surfing. You can’t really blame anyone for wanting to take claim for inventing one of the coolest water sports in the world. But only two groups of people have a real case for saying they invented surfing. The Pre-Incan Peruvians and the Polynesians.

The Case for the Pre-Inca Peruvians

The art found on Peruvian pottery 2000 years ago showed images of a man on a wooden structure trying to ride waves. You can actually see these museums in Peru today. Some historians and archaeologists believe the pre-Incan Peruvians were using a specific watercraft called Caballito de totora.

Caballito de totora

In English, this translates to little reed horses, though it’s not the original name since there were no horses there until the Spanish conquest.

They would use the Caballito de totora to capture fish and then ride the waves back to shore. In fact, they still use this watercraft to this day. You can even go down there and ride one yourself because they let tourists ride them too. But it’s debated whether this is the first example of humans doing any kind of surfing in the world.

The pre-Incan Peruvians would sometimes just sit while the waves were taking them back. Another assumption is that they may have used sticks to help them get back. Some would argue this reflects more of an origin for stand-up paddleboarding than surfing.

Still, other historians and archeologists believe this watercraft was used for both work and play. Interestingly, one of the longest rideable waves in the world, the chicama, is located in Puerto Malabrigo, Peru. It could have been hard not to have fun riding those waves.

The Case for the Polynesians

On Polynesian islands, there are cave paintings dating back to the 12th century showing people riding waves. Back in 4th century A.D, when Polynesians came to the Hawaiian islands from Tahiti, one of the customs they brought with them was surfing on paipo boards. Paipo means belly.

paipo boards

The Tahitians are said to have mainly lied on their stomachs when riding waves until arriving in Hawaii, where people started standing on their boards.

The first written record of surfing was during a European voyage to the Polynesian island of Tahiti. In 1769, Joseph Banks wrote in a journal about what he saw of the natives riding the waves. He described the woodcraft they used as old canoes. Banks was amused by what he saw for half an hour. He observed the natives seeming to be entertained by what they were doing.

This isn’t the only written recording either. In 1779, in the diaries of Captain Cook, James King described what he saw of natives riding waves in the water too.

Surfing is a Part of Polynesian Culture

What also makes surfing being invented by the Polynesians likely, is that the culture seems to have been centered around it. The Polynesians chiefs would be the ones who were the best surfers and have the best wooden boards.

Ruling classes were only allowed to surf certain areas unless a commoner could prove they had good surf skills. The wealthy had the longest boards, while the poorest had shorter boards. The practice of surfing is believed to have been of spiritual value to Polynesians.

The priests would pray for good waves and give a blessing to the wood being used to make the surfboards. There were even rules for how Hawaiians could make their surfboards.

Getting certain types of wood and putting fishes in the holes of trees they dug out as spiritual offerings. There’s so much detail and history to surfing in Hawaii and among all Polynesians, it’s hard not to believe they invented surfing.

Pre-Inca Peruvians and Polynesians Were in Contact

The biggest surprise in this whole who invented surfing mystery is that one explorer believes these two groups may have met each other. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl argued that Peruvians could have settled in Polynesian before the voyages of Columbus. He actually did something pretty cool to prove this.

Heyerdahl used only the materials and water equipment the Peruvians had at the time and sailed all the way to the Polynesian islands. This was known as the Kon-Tiki expedition.

He and his team sailed for 101 days before they arrived at the Tuamotus, successfully completing the journey. Therefore, it’s possible that the Peruvians could have met up with the Polynesians, and one or the other group could have shared what they knew about surfing.

Polynesians Made Surfing Popular

The rest of the history of surfing is just as interesting as the mystery of who invented it. Surfing was particularly a part of Hawaiian culture during the 17th and 18th centuries. But once European settlers colonized the island, most of the practices of Hawaiian culture ended. Europeans forced native Hawaiians to follow their customs and practices.

Despite all of that, some Hawaiians were still surfing during those times. As people continued to observe Hawaiians surfing, interest and curiosity grew among tourists.

American authors such as Mark Twain even attempted surfing and wrote about it. This brought even more interest in the activity. In 1907, George Freeth would be the man who would help popularize surfing in the United States.

George Freeth statue

He put on a demonstration of wave riding in California. It earned him the title of “The First Man to Surf in California.” Though in actuality, some believe Hawaiian princes may have surfed in Santa Cruz, California before Freeth did.

Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku was also responsible for helping popularize surfing in California and Australia. He was an Olympic swimmer, and he used his fame to spread surfing to the world.

More people would take up surfing over the years and it would eventually become a professional sport in 1960. Today, you can find people surfing wherever there are waves.

Many people still visit Hawaii to try out surfing the waves there. It’s actually on our list of best places to go surfing in the world.

Why it Matters who invented surfing

When you think about football or baseball, you think of the culture of America. Baseball is affectionately called America’s pastime. There’s a deeper connection for Americans than it just being a sport to play.

In the same way, surfing means something deep to the Polynesian culture and the culture of Peru. It’s a part of their history and who they are as a group of people. So it can be understood why it matters for either group to claim they invented surfing. It’s an important thing to learn and respect the cultures that contributed to its creation.

No one may ever know who invented surfing or what year it was invented. But despite the debate, both cultures can agree that surfing is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) sports to ever be invented.

All of us are lucky to know about surfing because of these cultures who generously shared it. Now that you know a little about who invented surfing, the best way you can honor the history is to go out and hit the waves.

If you’re new to surfing, these tips on how to surf will be helpful to you.

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