When we speak of the contributions indigenous cultures of the Americas have made to the modern world there are almost too many to name. And not just in food, art or music; several popular sports have indigenous origins, such as lacrosse and archery. Most people don’t know, however, that contemporary surfing can be traced back thousands of years, not just to Polynesia as most modern surf writers claim, but to the ancient Indians of Peru.
Modern surf culture can fairly be attributed to the legendary Hawaiian surf champion Duke Kahanamoku who made his way to California and Australia, sharing Hawaii’s surf stoke with dedicated watermen in the early 1900s. Although misleadingly dubbed the “Sport of Kings” by the early tourist industry in Hawaii, surfing in Native Hawaiian culture was a pastime shared by all—royalty and commoner, men and women alike—and likely came with the original Polynesians who settled in the Hawaiian Islands 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.
“The Duke,” as he is affectionately known in the surfing world, brought with him ancient Hawaii’s style of surfing, which centered on the type of boards Hawaiians used and eventually evolved into the iconic surfboards of today. It was not until the late 1980s, however, that a new story about surfing’s antiquity in Peru emerged from the shadows of history. New, that is, to surfing’s mainstream subculture—but well known to Peruvians.
That history came to light thanks to the 1960s era surfing legend Felipe Pomar, originally from Lima, Peru. In a 1988 issue of Surfer Magazine, Pomar wrote an article about Peru’s surfing history, affirming that based on local knowledge and recent archeological finds, ancient (i.e., indigenous) Peruvians have been surfing since at least 1000 B.C. Recounting the story of Pomar’s seminal article, surf historian Matt Warshaw would write years later in his authoritative treatise The History of Surfing, that the article “vanished without a trace.” This, he explained, was due to surfers’ attachment to the romantic (if not entirely accurate) ideal of surfing as the “sport of kings” born in a tropical paradise, compared to wave-riding’s much older origins in Peru’s desert coastline environment.
“'Ours has always been a culture of storytellers, not historians,’ a surf journalist wrote in 2005. In other words, surfers themselves prefer to shape, design and choose their collective past. And when it comes down to Hawaii or Peru—the tropics or the desert—the Sport of Kings or the Sport of Fishermen—well, that’s hardly a choice at all,” Warshaw wrote.
Such selective storytelling, while fanciful and good for marketing campaigns, doesn’t change the actual history. Turn back the clock 3,000 years to Huanchaco on the northern Peruvian coast, where the pre-Incan indigenous cultures of the Mochica and Chimú thrived. These ocean-based peoples were known to have cultivated their region of the Pacific Ocean into one of the largest fisheries in the world. Archeological evidence derived from the nearby Huaca de la Luna (“Temple of the Moon”) and Chan Chan excavation in the Moche Valley reveals images that show a reverence for the ocean and all its associated deities. Ceremonial pottery depicts a man riding a small one-man vessel known as a “totora.”
Observing the local inhabitants riding these small boat-like craft in the surf, the Spanish conquistadors called them “caballitos de totora,” or “little reed ponies,” referring to the material the vessels were made from. The totora de caballitos, with their distinctive upturned noses and width about the same as today’s surfboards, were outfitted for fishing. They were designed to crash their way through oncoming whitewater and to be able to ride waves gracefully onto the shore. The “surfer” utilized a paddle and could ride the totora either sitting down or standing up (similar to today’s standup paddleboards).
Today Huanchaco is a mecca for surfing in South America, and the totora de caballitos are still very much in use, in addition to modern surfing craft of all kinds. In 2013 Huanchaco was formally recognized as a World Surfing Reserve. The conferring organization (of the same name) “proactively identifies, designates and preserves outstanding waves, surf zones and their surrounding environments around the world.” World Surfing Reserve (WSR) noted that “[m]ost impressive is Huanchaco’s strong ocean heritage, which spans over 3,000 years. The strong ocean culture of Huanchaco is credited with being the birthplace of Peru’s ‘caballito de totora’ – one of humanity’s earliest known surf crafts used to ply the waves for both work and pleasure. Caballitos de totora are still an integral part of the local community, both for fishing and recreation.”
It’s interesting to note that nowhere in Polynesia—not even Hawaii—has yet been granted the distinction of a World Surfing Reserve. No doubt Hawaii will someday receive a WSR designation, as it should. But it’s good to know that not all surf experts and historians are so willing to gloss over surfing’s ancient history in indigenous Peru.
Felipe Pomar discusses Peru’s surfing history (7 minute video):