With a trip to Oahu on the horizon, I decided to get a little more nerdy and check out the history of surfing. Everyone thinks of Hawaii as the birthplace of surfing, don’t they? I guess it depends on what you’re idealism of surfing actually is, and what theories you’ve heard or deem as viable.
On the hunt for a well-researched source, I ironically came across The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw, a former editor of Surfer Magazine and author of several surf books. This particular hunk of a book was a 4-year project, 500 pages, and seemed like a promising resource covering surf history from the pre-1900’s to 2009.
Stoked about the arrival of this all-knowing book, I ripped the package open expecting to immediately read up on surfing in ancient Hawaii. I was confused, surprised, and a little excited when Warshaw began with an alternate theory, suggesting that the establishment of surfing had been proven to exist in Peru long before the widely-known recorded history in Hawaii.
A well-known Peruvian surfer, Felipe Pomar, has been advocating this theory for years. Around 3000 B.C. an invention called the caballito or “little horse” was created. Due to the coastline and geography in Peru, the caballito was made out of bundled reeds and used as a vehicle for trade and fishing, which were both essential daily activities. To keep whatever trade and food that was gathered for the community safe during daily trips to sea, ancient Peruvians had to be skilled and know how to interpret the waves and tides.
Their sites have revealed archeological findings dating back to 2600 B.C. that show ancient Peru’s affinity and respect for the ocean. Many artifacts show artwork of incoming swell on the horizon and images that suggest wave riding. Keep in mind, the longest left-hand break in the world, Chicama, is also in the lands where these ancient cultures resided.
Using the caballito to maneuver on waves is said to resemble the technique of stand-up paddle boarding more so than on a surfboard, however, the act of surfing for the ancient Peruvians was still treated as an art and cultural activity. Concrete artifacts and relics dating back to 1000 B.C. officially show the tradition and seriousness of wave riding in ancient Peru.
While ancient Peruvians were continuing to explore the seriousness of surf science with their caballitos, in 2000 B.C. a migration of expert sailors from South East Asia set out to discover Polynesia. A rudimentary form of surfing may have begun around that time. With Eastern Polynesia (the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Zealand) and Hawaii at the very end of the line, Polynesian travelers didn’t settle on the Hawaiian island until 300 A.D. with surfing being dated as a serious cultural staple around 1200 A.D.
With an island surrounded by never-ending breaks, surf, and warm weather, there is no doubt that it was extremely easy and natural for the Hawaiians to declare surfing as a way of life. One in which surfing was integrated into almost every aspect of daily life. The Peruvian’s climate is substantially more cold than that of Hawaii’s and consists of only one western coastline with world class breaks. Surfing mainly breached the surface in that part of the world as a “byproduct of work and probably limited to fisherman, surfing in Hawaii was both recreational and universal”.
A surf journalist wrote, “Good luck selling the idea that anchovy-trolling Peruvians were the first wave-riders. Surfers choose their collective past and when it comes down to Hawaii or Peru, the tropics or the desert, the sport of the kings or the sport of the fishermen - well, that’s hardly a choice at all.”
Yes, Hawaiian surf history and culture is undoubtedly more vibrant and widely known, but shouldn’t the ancient Peruvian early surf skills and wave riding tactics be credited for something?
- Mindy Hawes