The History of Surfing and Its Origin

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Updated: July 1, 2024

Do you know what sport was invented in Hawaii? You might already have an idea, but we’ll go into detail as to how and why it’s such an integral part of daily life in Hawaii.

Surfing has existed in one form or another for several centuries. We can trace its origins back to Polynesia. Modern surfing takes place anywhere people can catch waves. It wasn’t always just a recreational activity. We can’t pinpoint the exact origins, but we can infer a lot from what we know.

What we are confident about: surfing had a kind of religious significance in Polynesian culture. It was not merely a sport—it was an entire way of life. Tahitians and Samoans even used it as a way to train their warriors for battle. It is not precisely the chill, easy-going vibe that we associate with surfing today.

Regardless of how you approach surfing as part of your life, its history and origins are part of what makes it such a beautiful and unique sport. Read on to learn a bit more about how surfing came to be, how it developed into what it is today, and all of the steps it took along the way.

When Was Surfing Invented?

The earliest evidence of surfing history can be traced back to 12th century Polynesia. Cave paintings have been found which clearly illustrate ancient versions of surfing. Along with many other aspects of their culture, the Polynesians brought surfing to Hawaii, and it became popular from there.

Though it is impossible to say precisely when the first instance of surfing happened, we know that it was hundreds of years ago. Polynesian culture is tied to ocean life, and ancient Polynesians were comfortable in the water. Whether canoeing, swimming, or surfing, the ocean was integral to how the lived.

So what hard evidence do we have about when surfing was first discovered? One of the most famous written accounts of surfing is the diary of European captain James Cook who witnessed Tahitian surfers in 1778. He and his crew were shocked to see men riding the waves on planks on wood.

James Cook’s diary provided readers with lots of valuable information about sailing in the Pacific. Still, the Europeans had never seen anything like surfing. They were even worried about the surfers because they expected the waves to throw them on jagged rocks near the shore.

Of course, those Tahitian surfers came from a culture where everyone knew how to hold their own in the water. The men jumped off their boards before reaching the rocks, and even smiled while doing it. For them, it was just another day of sunshine and surf.

“I could not help concluding, that this man felt the most supreme pleasure, while he was driven on, so fast and so smoothly, by the sea.”

Captain James Cook

While we can only make estimates about when the first human put a piece of wood in the water and rode the waves, we do know a lot about how the board was used. Many stories say that the selection of a chief in a Polynesian tribe was based on who could surf the best. That’s a lot of pressure to improve.

To summarize, we can infer that the sport is as old as the 12th century (maybe older), but it was definitely in full swing within Polynesian culture by the 18th century. From there, it would go from being a high-stakes test of athletic prowess to the chill, carefree sport we know as surfing today.

What Is the Birthplace of Surfing?

Ancient Polynesia is the undisputed birthplace of surfing, and nowhere is this story more prominent than the islands of Hawaii.

Imagine asking any random person, “What is Hawaii best known for?” Beaches, aloha shirts, ukuleles, and surfing would be the most popular answers, without a doubt.

Although most evidence points to surfing’s Polynesian origins, there was also some debate that Pre-Incan civilizations may have beat them to it. However, this was later debunked because these watercraft more closely resemble stand up paddleboards than surfboards.

Other evidence in favor of this has to do with their cultural ties to the sport. If you have ever spent a day paddling out on a board, you know that it can be an exhausting endurance test. So it comes as no surprise that Polynesian warriors used it as a means of fitness training.

Because surfing requires so much fitness and strength, it was also used as the way to determine who would serve as chief in primitive Hawaiian tribes.

These days athletes surf for fun, bragging rights, or professional sponsorship. Back then, you could have been made a ruler if you managed to prove yourself.

Who Invented Surfing?

Since we have no way of knowing exactly when the first attempted surf session was, we are also in the dark about who had the idea in the first place. We can infer that the creator of surfing was of Polynesian origin, but even that’s just speculation.

Sorry, but that’s the closest answer we have got!

While our information about the first surfer is limited, we can do the next best thing and follow history to see who brought the sport to life. When European settlers first came to Hawaii, surfing lost a lot of its edge. Hawaiian locals were steered away from surfing, and the Christian settlers shunned it entirely.

Still, surfing was such an essential part of Hawaiian culture that people never stopped doing it entirely. If there were waves to catch, the locals weren’t about to let the Europeans ruin their good time. Around the end of the 19th century, tourism began to develop, and surfing started to make a huge comeback.

People from all over the world started to notice how awesome surfing is, and this was fantastic for Hawaiian tourism. One of the most prominent early players in modern surfing was Duke Kahanamoku. Born in 1890, “The Duke” was one of the best surfers of his time and also an accomplished Olympic swimmer.

Once Duke’s fame as an athlete reached a certain point, he decided to go on a world tour to showcase his skills and spread the love of surfing. From California to Australia, he traveled, surfed, and caught the eyes of thousands of eager spectators. He single-handedly popularized the Hawaiian surf tradition.

While we can’t say that The Duke invented surfing, surfing was a massive part of his legacy, and his influence played a pivotal role in the history of surfing.

Thanks to his enthusiasm and athleticism, the sport gained more attention than ever before. If anyone in surf history deserves the title of “The Father of Surfing,” it is him.

How Did Surfing Become Popular?

In hindsight, it seems like a strange question to ask. How could something as amazing as surfing not be popular!? Still, surfing didn’t become a sensation overnight. Once surfing starting to emerge as a sport, there were a few key factors that made it into a global hit.

Due to the oppression that European settlers imposed on the Hawaiians, surfing was heavily discouraged during the 19th century. This resulted in a widespread lack of enthusiasm toward it, and this time is referred to as the “dark age” in the history of surfing. Still, it never entirely died out, and people continued to do it.

Hawaiian tourism starting to pick up in the late 1800s, and lots of people traveled to the islands to take a crack at surfing. As interest in surfing increased, notable authors like Jack London and Mark Twain even gave it a try. It was like everyone wanted a piece of this exciting “new” sport.

Duke Kahanamoku (mentioned previously) also did a lot to spread surfing’s reputation in both the United States and Australia. As surfing superstars started to emerge over the years, it became a professional sport around 1960. Once the wave of interest in surfing picked up, it became an unstoppable sensation.

Throughout the 1960s, surfing continued to become increasingly huge thanks to media exposure. Bands like The Beach Boys lent their unique sound to writing music that was all about surf, sun, and spreading the good vibes that surfing is so well-known for.

This popularity did a lot to help the growth of the West Coast surf scene, and it also made Americans even more fascinated with Hawaii. After Hawaii became a state in 1959, the tourists came in waves (pun strongly intended) to ride the swells off the Hawaiian coast.

From there, things continued to grow correspondingly. Surfing is now popular all over the world, and it is done anywhere people can catch a decent wave. Hundreds of tourists still flock to Hawaii each year to get a piece of the surf action in the part of the world where it was created.

What Role Did Surfing Play in Hawaiian Culture and History?

The word “surf” in Hawaiian is he’e nalu, which loosely translates to “sliding on a wave.”

It is no surprise that the first surfers came from a society that had a robust connection to the water. However, for ancient Polynesians, surfing was more than just a fun way to pass the time. It was way more serious for them back then compared to how we view the sport today.

For instance, there was a staggering difference between the upper class and the lower class in their culture. This division meant that all aspects of society were predetermined by the code of kapu (their laws). The code predetermined all aspects, including how to grow food, where you can eat it, and even where you are allowed to surf.

Naturally, the chiefs and upper-class society members picked the best breaks for themselves. The commoners also had areas where they could surf too, but it was strictly taboo for them to venture into the royal surf spots. Talk about hogging all the best swells!

In addition to where you could surf, the code of kapu also gave instructions for how long your board could be. Commoners had shorter 12-foot surfboards, while wealthier members of society used 24-foot longboards. It wasn’t the easy-going kind of surfing that we see today.

With all of these rules, it makes you wonder why the chiefs didn’t just forbid commoners from surfing entirely. Fortunately for everyone, surfing also had a spiritual connection for Hawaiian society at the time. Surfing was the people’s way of praying to their gods, and it had a ritual significance as a result.

Surfing was also used as a way to prove yourself and gain respect within the upper class. It was a way to show your strength, mastery of the waves, and skills. While the first surfers certainly felt the same adrenaline rush that modern surfers do, back then it was no laughing matter when you rode the waves.

The code of kapu is no longer enforced today, and anyone can surf on any board that they want. There’s no escaping the fact that surfing is deeply rooted in Hawaiian history. Whether or not you are spiritual towards surfing, praying to the gods for great waves can only help your chances, right?

How Were the First Surf Boards Made?

Ancient Hawaiian society had strict rules that laid out the laws for many aspects of life. These kapu (taboos) were also huge in determining where you can surf, how your board should be made, and what size it should be. Back then, they took their surfing very seriously.

Making your surfboard was an almost sacred undertaking, and you had to follow the conventions just right. When choosing wood for surfboards, Hawaiians would only opt for three types of trees: koa, ‘ulu, and wiliwili. The surfer would then dig out the tree and put fish in the hole as a spiritual offering.

Once these practices were carried out to the last detail, a specialized artisan in the community would make the tree into a surfboard. Ancient Hawaiian surfers had to carry boards which were as massive as 175 pounds. Sounds fun!

Your place in society also determined how long your board was allowed to be. Longer boards were reserved for higher society, and shorter boards were permitted for commoners. The shape of your board was also a class indicator. You were bound to these rules regardless of what you wanted.

Since ancient Polynesians lived a life that was so connected to the ocean, they had plenty of experience with woodworking and creating their watercraft. On top of knowing the best way to make surfboards, they were also skilled at making rafts and canoes for fishing.

The social norms related to surfboards eventually died out with the divided class system. These days you can surf where you want on whatever kind of board you like most. Although the traditions of ancient surfboard making are strict by today’s standards, surfing is still a considerable part of local Hawaiian culture.

The majority of modern surfboards are made from polyurethane or polystyrene foam. Modern technology has allowed for surfboard designs that maximize maneuverability and durability. Most importantly, you don’t have to lug around a 175 lb. board to catch some waves!

Final Thoughts

In the end, we have a lot of unanswered questions about the history of surfing. We know that it played an essential role in ancient Polynesian society in terms of their lifestyle and religion. We also know that it used to be way more serious than the sport that’s known and loved by so many people today.

Despite all the differences between now and then, a lot of common ground remains. People all around the world love to surf as a way to challenge themselves, get active, be close to the water, and experience the thrill of riding on waves. Hang ten, enjoy the vibes, and everything else becomes a minor detail!

If you want the best surf lessons in Hawaii, be sure to check out Waikiki Beach Services, which has been operating since 1955.