The ongoing question about the true origin of surfing

Alvaro Pastor's picture
Alvaro Pastor
07 · 19 · 2019

We know that one of your passions is surfing. But have you ever been interested in knowing its real origin? Many think that the origin and birth of surfing goes back approximately 2000 years in Hawaii or Polynesia islands but it is possible that it is not at all this way.

In fact, there is no real consensus around this event, since we already know that the scientific community and anthropological roots sometimes clash with each other, but it is interesting to know all the theories, at least to never abandon the thirst for knowledge.

From Peru, it is maintained that pre-Columbian civilizations already practiced this sport in a certain way. According to the ancient traditions of these peoples, the gods taught the primitive inhabitants to throw themselves into the sea in rudimentary boats called "caballitos de totora", and they did it not only to fish or make maritime expeditions, but they could also practice it for fun.

There is some evidence that can show that in rafts similar to these, these ancient civilizations could reach Oceania and the islands of Polynesia in particular, to populate or trade with them. At this point is where a great debate is generated, since most of the anthropological theories maintain that it happened the other way around, which was from Polynesia where it was possible to reach the South American continent.

But scientific debates aside, let's talk about these boats, and why they can be related to current surfing. The caballitos are made from the stems and leaves of this characteristic plant called totora, an aquatic plant that grows along the Peruvian coast. Already before the Incas, ie 5000 years ago, these boats were built but were known by the many as "Tup".

With the Spanish conquest, when seeing the skill with which the natives mounted these boats, they were called caballitos. Placed vertically, they measure between 3 and 4 meters in height, and can carry almost 200 kilos of cargo inside, which is a great advantage for fishing. But, apart from these kilos, they were also used by the ancient inhabitants of Peru to once they entered the sea, render offerings and worship the sea.

In some beaches of the coast of Peru, especially in the Spa of Huanchaco, located to the north of the country these rafts continue being used to surf the waves. Generally, a little horse has a life of one month, but experts in its repair and maintenance are still active, trying to maintain a tradition and fleet that is diminishing each time.

Also, these boats are still being built in an artisanal way, hand woven by artisans and fishermen through an ancestral technique, transmitted from generation to generation.

If we compare it with the surf we know, it undoubtedly has many similarities. Riding these boats is no easy task. It takes strength, balance and dexterity to handle the paddle, called "guayaquil".

But, it is still an unknown if surfing as a recreational activity emerged in Peru or Hawaii. In this last place, the indigenous aristocracy resisted and contributed since the end of the 19th century to recover board surfing as a sporting activity. In Peru, the miserable conditions that the descendants of the old reed horse surfers went through since the Spanish conquest prevented the maintenance and development of this "surf" as a fun or sporting activity.

Currently, the waves offered by the Andean country are known worldwide. In particular, it is very probable that you know the Chicama wave. It is the queen of the kilometric waves. In suitable conditions, it is the longest left wave in the world, because you can get to surf more than 2 kilometers of wave. In this scenario, world records have been set in terms of distance travelled, time and manoeuvres.

Let's hope that the unknown with the passage of time will end up being solved. In the meantime, we invite you to visit Peru, a country of contrasts and great waves in which the cultural heritage of ancient civilizations still endures. From the Peruvian government, with respect to the caballitos de totora, as a protection measure it has decided to declare them Nation Cultural Patrimony.