How Ancient Polynesians Conquered the Pacific on Their Surfboards

Before it was a popular worldwide sport, surfing was a deeply spiritual practice that allowed seafaring cultures to commune with the ocean. It was developed independently in Polynesia, from which it spread via Hawaii to the United States, and in Peru and West Africa. In some ways, the mystical significance of these surfing traditions lives on even today.

Lone surfer Charles Kauha carries one of the last traditional Hawaiian surfboards at Waikiki Beach in this 1898 photograph by Frank Davey. Via Wikimedia Commons.

June 30, 2023 22:43 EDT

I’m sitting on the hot sand at Playa de Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, a sleepy hamlet on Mexico’s Pacific coast, exhausted after a long session on the waves. My friend Neftali is on his back, lain out beside me. We don’t say anything because grappling with the tempestuous ocean has drained us of all thought. We are tired but also exhilarated. Trying to put the sensations that one feels while surfing into words is a futile endeavor. It’s like getting high and making love while flying at the same time. Shaun Thompson, the legendary South African surfer, comes close to describing it:

Riding inside the tube is a remarkable existential experience, a moment when life comes into perfect focus, when the immediacy and urgency of the moment is tempered by a feeling of stillness, by an awareness that one is connected to the entire fabric of the universe, riding inside an absolutely silent and solitary tunnel of water, a sense that the past is slipping behind your shoulder, the present is beneath your feet and the future is just ahead, out of reach, represented by a spinning, hypnotic, tumbling tunnel of water just ahead.

Thompson was echoing what surfers from as far back as three thousand years had felt while riding the mighty waves thrown up by the ocean. For some millennia, what has become a glamorized sport, associated with symbols of American excess—expensive merchandise, huge corporate endorsements, bare-chested white men sporting long blonde hair and endless cases of beer—was a sacred and ritualistic act for the ancient peoples of Polynesia, of Peru and of West Africa, one which brought them closer to the heartbeat of nature and in direct communion with their deities.

Surfing as a Religion and Way of Life

Polynesia, which includes islands such as Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji, is widely regarded as the birthplace of surfing. The Polynesians had a profound connection to the ocean, as it played a central role in their lives. Surfing was not just a means of transportation or leisure for them; it was a spiritual practice and a way to connect with their gods and the natural elements.

In Polynesian culture, the ocean was considered a sacred entity, inhabited by powerful deities and spirits. Surfing became a way to honor and commune with these divine forces. It was believed that the act of riding a wave allowed individuals to tap into the energy and power of the ocean, forging a connection between the physical and spiritual realms. The power expressed by ocean waves is what compels surfers even today to go out into the ocean and ride the waves. 

The native Hawaiians cherished a canon of traditional stories and songs that spoke of the noble figures who ruled the land and rode the waves. Hawaiian tradition allows us to date surfing in the islands back to the fourth century.

When the Makahiki New Year season arrived, a time of rest and play that accompanied the arrival of prime winter waves, the art of wave riding, known as Heʻe Nalu, took center stage. It was a shared experience among kings, queens, commoners and even children; everyone embraced the joy of surfing. The significance of surfing for early Hawaiians was so immense that they had a strict prohibition against working or engaging in warfare during Makahiki. Instead, everyone would enjoy a complete three-month break during the winter to foster social connections through play and friendly competitions.

There was, however, a distinction in surfing privileges. Only the royalty had access to the best spots, like the renowned Queens Beach, the exclusive surf break at Waikiki. King Kamehameha himself fondly described the places he surfed with his beloved wife, Kaʻahumanu. These tales wove together Hawaiian myths and legends, where gods and goddesses rode the waves, controlling the winds, tides and swells.

In the spiritual ceremony of surfing, the kahuna, or priest, played a crucial role. The kahuna guided surfers in the sacred task of selecting and constructing wooden surfboards made from trees like koa, ulu or wiliwili. The kahuna made offerings and skilled craftsmen carried out the important task of carving. 

Surfers would seek the blessings of the gods Lono and Laʻamaomao, asking for favorable surf conditions and safe passage. Lono was associated with fertility, rainfall, agriculture and music. He is one of four great gods in Hawaiian mythology along with Kuka’ilimoku (also called Kū) and the twin brothers Kanaloa and Kāne.

Even the powerful goddesses Pele and Hiʻiaka were said to have joined in the art of surfing. Pele, or Pelehonuamea, is the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. This fiery goddess molds the hallowed earth, persistently consuming the Big Island with flowing lava and simultaneously giving birth to fresh terrain.

The Celestial Navigators

In addition to its spiritual significance, surfing had practical aspects in Polynesian society. It was a means of transportation, allowing islanders to navigate between islands and explore new territories. Surfing also served as a way to gather resources from the ocean, such as fish and other marine life.

The Hawaiian islands stand as the most remote landmasses on Earth, and when you are there this profound isolation becomes palpable as you float in the ocean. Amidst the cobalt expanse of the Pacific, the mighty deep-sea currents and powerful swells collide with Hawaii’s shallow reefs, exhibiting untamed nature in the form of explosive, barrelling waves that leave you breathless.

These islands are the visible peaks of the submerged Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. Over the course of the past 5 million years, molten lava accumulated from beneath the ocean’s surface, gradually cooling and rising to form these volcanic islands, which now rise gracefully above the water’s edge.

Imagine embarking on a daring adventure, sailing away from the shores of a Polynesian island in a magnificent canoe. Your destination? Another tiny island thousands of miles away, nestled in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. This immense body of water stretches across more than 60 million square miles, presenting an immense challenge. But here’s the astonishing part: for countless centuries, the skilled Polynesian navigators undertook such voyages without the aid of modern navigation tools. How on earth did they achieve such incredible feats?

Picture 40-person canoes skimming the waves, outrigger canoes gliding through the water and the ingeniously designed multi-hulled canoes powering along boosted by their intricate sail configurations. These took the Polynesian navigators across vast distances. Specialized surf canoes deftly traversed treacherous reefs and enabled their users to take on the thrilling challenge of riding the waves.

Studying the stars, observing the moon and deciphering other natural phenomena, these ancient mariners were able to determine their position and course. This mastery over the elements, allowed them to conquer the vast oceans. 

This extraordinary skill of wayfinding was meticulously passed down through generations of Polynesian sailors. The art of navigation without the aid of modern instruments became an intrinsic part of their heritage. They possessed an intimate knowledge of ocean currents, the intricate dance of wind patterns, the behavior of birds and the subtle signs of nature. It was a testament to their profound connection with the natural world, culminating in their awe-inspiring achievement of reaching the isolated Hawaiian Islands. 

The history of surfing as we know it does indeed originate in Polynesia. However, the story would not be complete without two more chapters: South America and Africa.

Surfing in Ancient Peru

The Mochica people of Peru were an ancient civilization that thrived along the northern part of the country’s coast from approximately 100 to 800 CE. Known for their advanced agricultural practices, skilled craftsmanship and unique cultural expressions, the Mochica left a lasting impact on the region.

Among their many achievements, the Mochica people developed a surfing tradition that has captivated historians and enthusiasts alike. At the heart of this tradition were what are now called the caballitos de totora, or “little reed horses,” which were paddleboards made of sedge and specifically designed for riding the waves.

The caballitos de totora played a significant role in the lives of the Mochica fishermen. These lightweight, maneuverable paddleboards allowed them to navigate the challenging surf zone with ease, enabling access to abundant coastal waters for fishing, the exploitation of which required exceptional skill and mastery.

Archaeological evidence such as pottery fragments has provided valuable insights into the surfing tradition of the Mochica. The presence of depictions and representations of surfers on pottery pieces from 1400 to 1100 BCE suggests that the Mochica were the earliest known practitioners of wave riding in the world.

The surfing tradition of the Mochica people not only served as a means of sustenance but also held cultural and ceremonial significance. It symbolized their deep connection to the ocean and their mastery over the natural elements. Today, the legacy of the Mochica surfing tradition lives on in Huanchaco, a coastal town in Peru where the caballitos de totora continue to be used by local fishermen. 

Nevertheless, Peru was not the only region where surfing emerged independently from the Polynesian tradition that we know today.

The Wave Riders of West Africa

In his essay “Surfing in Africa and the Diaspora,” Kevin Dawson, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced, sheds light on the fascinating history of surfing. According to Dawson, the earliest documented account of surfing dates back to 1640 in what is now known as Ghana.

Across the expansive coastline of Western Africa, spanning thousands of miles from Senegal to Angola, merchants and fishermen independently developed surfing practices. These seagoing populations crafted large surf canoes capable of riding waves as high as ten feet, employing various postures, including standing. Additionally, they used three to five-foot wooden surfboards and one-person surf canoes.

Beyond wave-riding vessels, Africans in these regions also utilized longboards for long-distance paddling. These impressive boards could reach lengths of up to 12 feet. Similar to contemporary surfboard shapers who tailor their boards to different wave types, West Africans developed numerous shapes and designs for surf canoes. Each design was carefully crafted to suit specific waves found in different local regions. Considerations such as wave size, shape, steepness and power informed the creation of these diverse surf canoes.

Just as in Polynesian cultures, the surf canoes of West Africa held a sacred significance. They were meticulously carved from specific trees in a ceremonial manner. These chosen trees were believed to serve as a meeting point of the spiritual and physical worlds, with the spirits residing within them maintaining a continued connection to the water spirits throughout the lifespan of the canoe.

The ocean itself held profound spiritual meaning for these West Africans. It was regarded as a realm inhabited by deities and otherworldly gods, including Mami Wata, a revered ancient West African deity often depicted as a divine, feminine mermaid. These spiritual beliefs further deepened the cultural connection between the people and the water, infusing their wave riding with a sense of reverence for the natural world.

Christian Missionaries Ban the “Heathen” Sport

These ancient cultures, alas, were not to last in their undisturbed form. With the arrival of European explorers in the Pacific, a tragic consequence unfolded: the devastating toll of infectious diseases had claimed the lives of at least 84% of the Native Hawaiian population by the year 1840. Furthermore, the influence of missionaries led to the banning of surfing. They labeled the practice labeling a “heathen” activity. Missionaries sought to convert local populations to Christianity and promote Western values, often deeming indigenous customs inferior or sinful. 

This suppression of surfing was not limited to Hawaii alone, as missionaries also imposed similar bans in West Africa and South America. As a result, the age of colonization witnessed a sharp decline in the practice of surfing, causing it to nearly vanish from the Hawaiian islands and numerous coastal communities worldwide.

The Resurgence of Surfing

The modern resurgence of surfing can be credited to a few visionary individuals who reintroduced the sport to the world. In the early 20th century, Hawaiian watermen like Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth showcased their surfing prowess to curious audiences in California and Australia, reigniting interest in this ancient art form.

Duke Kahanamoku, a legendary surfer and Olympic swimmer, played a significant role in introducing surfing to a global audience. Duke’s international recognition as an Olympic athlete helped elevate the status of surfing, bringing it into the mainstream consciousness.

Similarly, George Freeth, known as the “Father of Modern Surfing,” played a vital role in popularizing the sport on the American mainland. Originally from Hawaii, Freeth relocated to California and shared his surfing expertise with coastal communities along the Pacific coast. His exhibitions and spectacular wave-riding demonstrations attracted widespread attention and fascination. Freeth’s impact was especially notable in Southern California, where his performances inspired a generation of surf enthusiasts and laid the groundwork for the region’s surf culture.

From this revival, surfing experienced a rapid evolution. Board designs evolved from heavy wooden planks to lighter, more maneuverable materials like fiberglass and foam. The 1950s and 60s witnessed the emergence of surf culture, with surf movies like Endless Summer, bands like the Beach Boys, and a distinctive style becoming intertwined with the sport.

Surfing’s popularity spread across the globe in subsequent decades, reaching iconic surf spots such as Malibu in California, Bondi Beach in Australia and the legendary Pipeline back in Hawaii. Competitive surfing gained traction, leading to the establishment of professional circuits like the World Surf League. Celebrated surfers such as Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore became household names, inspiring a new generation of wave enthusiasts. 

Despite the commodification of this ancient art form, legions of devotees flock to remote coastal hamlets around the world to pay homage to the ancient deities, asking for their blessings and hoping to experience the state of absolute freedom that only they can bestow.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member