SANTIAGO – Almost everyone knows that Chile is an international surf destination. What’s not well-known is that standup surfing is indigenous to the west coast of South America, going back at least 5,000 years. In fact, standup surfing might even have originated here. In part one of a three-part series, Chile Today takes a look at the origins of surfing.
“Surfing is one of the oldest continuously practiced sports on the planet. The art of wave riding, itself, is a mixture of sensitivity to being in the environment at a given moment and sheer athleticism,” notes the Hawaiian Boarding Company in a summary of the ancient “sliding sports” of wave surfing, He’enalu, and mountain surfing, He’ehölua (the latter of which seems particularly ripe for modification and adoption in mountainous Chile).
As the summary further explains, “It is thought that early surfing began with Polynesians riding waves in their canoes, on their way in to shore from a day of fishing. Ingeniously, they discovered that, given a little more paddling effort, they were able to catch waves over coral reefs and hasten their arrival on the beach.
As a culture that cherished the sea, these Polynesians found a way to make their chores into a game of fun. These first surfers were true waterman in their use of strength and skill to maneuver these heavy boats, which eventually evolved into slabs of wood. The first Polynesian surfers who began standing upon wooden boards in the surf of the Pacific Ocean did so between 1500 B.C. and 400 A.D.”
Surfing soon became ritualized in Hawai`i, and, hundreds of years later, in the 20th century, popularized and fetishized in coastal communities around the world, notably, California’s—especially after surfer Jack O’Neill popularized the neoprene wetsuit.
Do those roots reach back to Peru?
But surf “stoke” also has its roots elsewhere, including closer to home. It might even be happenstance that we trace board surfing to Polynesia and not the west coast of South America.
Fishermen along the Peruvian coast have been using caballitos de totora (“little horses of totora”)—small, woven vessels made out of totora, a subspecies of giant bulrush—for more than 5,000 years.
As SurferToday explains, “After laying the fishing nets and dropping the traps for the lobster, fishermen return to the beach and ride the waves with the Caballito de Totora in a standing, kneeling or sitting position.”
But it wasn’t all work and no play. As SurferToday further explains, “[h]istorians believe that coastal communities have always used the reed watercraft for professional and recreational purposes.”
The reason these coastal communities did not adopt board use might be as simple as the fact that a caballito de totora can be built in just two hours—a fraction of the time it takes to harvest, cut, shape, and sand a traditional Polynesian board.
In fact, some now argue that “the traditional practice of Peruvian surfing” migrated from the coast of Peru to the Polynesian islands, and that Polynesian board surfing was just a subsequent refinement.
“Until the contrary has been proven, today’s Peruvian surfers have the legitimate right to say that they are the heirs to the sport of kings,” conclude Roberto Meza, Oscar Tramontana, and Carlos Pardo, in an ambitious, evocative online book that speaks to the surfer in all of us, 5,000 años surcando olas: la historia de la table en el Perú (5,000 years of riding waves: the history of surfing in Peru), available in Spanish and English.
Robert Travis grew up in San Francisco, California, and moved to Santiago, Chile, in July 2018. In addition to editing and writing for Chile Today, he practices law from afar with Travis & Travis. He’s thrilled to be living in the same hemisphere as “the world’s longest left,” Playa Chicama.