Peru has a rich surfing history, although little is known about its earliest days. Those days of riding bundled reeds perhaps even took place before Austronesian surfing on flat wooden boards began. Certainly, the archeological record shows it preceded the Polynesians.
Off the west coast of South America, Pacific ground swells hit the beaches from Panama to Patagonia, producing some of the planet’s best surf. Peru, South America’s third-largest country, has a long surfing history to go with its 1,500 miles of mostly dry and rugged Pacific-facing coastline.
“The surf in Peru is remarkably consistent,” wrote Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “with wave height averaging between three to six foot throughout the year, thanks to long-distance north swells during the summer, a steady feed of powerful south swells in winter, and a balance of the two during spring and fall. About 80 percent of Peru’s surf spots are lefts, most of them breaking along rocky points spilling onto sandy beaches. Daytime coastal air temperatures generally range between the low 70s in summer and the low 60s in winter; water temperatures around the capital city of Lima, chilled by the Humboldt current, range from the upper 60s to the mid-50s.”
Surfing in Peru is centered in Lima – home to one-fifth of the country’s total population. “Peru’s wave-rich northern tip faces northwest (the rest of the coast faces southwest), warmed by the Panama Current, is home to an assortment of points and reefs, including the high-acceleration tubes at Cabo Blanco, Chicama – the arid left-breaking point known as the longest ocean wave in the world, with rides sometimes lasting more than a mile – is located about 200 miles south of Punta Negra, and is flanked by at least four other high-quality breaks. Lima’s Pico Alto is the country’s premier big-wave spot, with well-shaped rights and lefts (rights preferred) breaking up to 25 feet. The country’s southern coast is lightly populated, hard to access, and rarely surfed. The number and quality of surf breaks, however, is thought to be nearly equal to that found in the north.”
In addition to this surf wealth, the ancient land now known as Peru has the oldest documented tradition of wave riding.
In relatively recent years, Peruvian world champion surfer Felipe Pomar has lead the charge for greater recognition of Peru’s wave riding heritage. Taking it a step further, Felipe has joined with a few surfing and non-surfing historians to argue that surfing as a sport originated in what is now called Peru. They point to the fact that pre-Inca fishermen were riding surf as far back as 3,000 B.C., riding waves on what Spanish conquistadors called caballitos (little horses) made of bundled reeds. This puts the Peruvians about a thousand years before the earliest estimates for surf riding in Hawaii.
The conventional history of surfing, of course, has surfing originating as a very basic type of wave riding originating in the western Pacific Ocean. Under this scenario, the first surfers were Polynesian or Polynesian ancestors, Austronesians. It has been estimated that Polynesian surfing began sometime between 2000 B.C. and 400 A.D.
University of Hawaii anthropology professor and early surf historian Ben Finney acknowledged that surfing as we know it, probably preceded the Polynesians. In his Surfboarding in Oceania: Its Pre-European Distribution, Finney wrote that an “extensive examination of the available sources has shown that surfboarding was known in Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. In fact, surfboarding was practiced in Oceania from New Guinea in the West, to Easter Island in the East, and from Hawaii in the North to New Zealand in the South.” Finney cited sightings of various forms of primitive surfing in places as diverse as Owa Raha in the Solomon Islands (observed in 1949); to Yap in the Western Carolines (observed by a colleague); and south in the New Hebrides and Fiji. “With reservations,” Finney concluded, this “wide distribution would seem to indicate that surfboarding is a general Oceanic sport, rather than a specifically Polynesian sport.”
Decades after writing the foregoing, however, Finney clarified that – lest one be easily tempted to look elsewhere than Polynesia for surfing’s earliest roots – “Indigenous board-surfing in the Pacific was most highly developed on islands within the Polynesian Triangle bounded by Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Early reports of surfing along the shores of islands from New Guinea to Polynesia indicate that this sport, at least in its rudimentary form, was part of the common heritage of the seafaring people who spread across the Pacific thousands of years ago.”
So, if Polynesian surfing began before people reached the Hawaiian Islands, it is certainly older than 3,000 years ago. The fact is, we just don’t know how old surfing in eastern Polynesia is, let alone how old it is in western Polynesia. Could pre-Polynesians have surfed? It’s most certainly probable, even if it was merely bodysurfing, bodyboarding or canoe surfing.
In fact, anywhere on the planet that has surf, a moderate or temperate climate, and coastal populations of humans engaged in fishing, there must have been surfers – if only riding surf in canoes as part of work or recreationally. Also, the tendency of young peope to get into the ocean and bodysurf is a universal act. Many historians wishing to blaze new ground often forget this most obvious aspect of coastal living in all ages and all temperate coasts.
I have written about this and postulate that surfing is not only far older than we think, but has been practiced worldwide for tens of thousands of years – certainly as far back as cognitive homo sapiens emerged in Africa.
We are fortunate that the coastal Peruvians, very early on, developed ceramic art to a high degree early in their history because they left an actual record of their surfing behind. In the museum of the Peruvian city of Chan Chan, there is pottery showing Huanchaco people “running waves” on reed rafts we now call caballitos de totora (little horses of the totora reed). These reed mats were and still are used primarily for fishing, but the pottery also indicates they were also used for fun; to ride the breaking waves of the northwest coast of Peru. Dating of the ceramic artifacts prove that wave riding on reed boats existed in that country as early as 3000 to 4000 B.C., long before the Spanish invasion in the 16th Century and well before the founding of the the Incan Empire in the 13th Century.
The two ancient pre-Inca cultures, Mochica and Chimu, developed in the north of Peru more than two thousand years ago. These were the first Peruvian societies to relate actively with powerful coastal tidal zones, through fishing and transport. The people of these societies left us many examples of designs featuring waves in their religious iconography and their art expressed on textiles, frescos and ceramics.
The first Peruvians to ride waves were no doubt fishermen who had to traverse often powerful ocean waves in order to get food. Peruvians are still using the reed craft their ancestors used thousands of years ago, now in modern times. It is possible to watch them in Trujillo; Huanchaco Beach is famous for this reason. Our attention to this early Peruvian surfing history has been in large part due to legendary surfer Felipe Pomar.
“In 1987,” surf writer Matt Warshaw wrote, “[Felipe] Pomar began a one-man crusade to have the fishermen of ancient Chan Chan, a pre-Inca empire located in what is now Peru’s northern territory, recognized as the original surfers. Chan Chan fishermen from as far back as 3,000 B.C., Pomar said, used reed-built caballitos (‘little horses’) to ride waves… ‘While there is much room for speculation,’ Pomar said in a surf magazine article, ‘there seems to be a distinct possibility that the embryonic form of modern-day surfing was born off the coast of northern Peru.’”
“In Northern Peru,” Felipe told me, “there is pottery that shows people paddling on a surfboard-like one-man boat, paddling with their arms... They're called caballitos de totora. ‘caballitos’ means ‘little horses’ and ‘totora’ is a certain kind of reed. The Spanish Conquistadores named the little reed surfboards – or the reed kayaks; they're somewhere between a surfboard and a kayak – they named them ‘caballitos’ because when they witnessed them riding waves on one of these caballitos, they were used to riding horses and they saw them riding in with the surf, so they called them ‘little horses.’”
Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002)
Could pre-Peruvians have been influenced by pre-Polynesians or Polynesians? Thor Heyerdahl (October 6, 1914, Larvik, Norway – April 18, 2002, Colla Micheri, Italy), the Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer with a scientific background in zoology and geography definitely believed the two peoples had made isolated contacts with each other over the thousands of years preceding the Modern Era. Heyerdahl became notable for his Kon-Tiki expedition of the late 1940s, when he sailed 4,300 miles (8,000 km) by raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands.
Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition is important in the discussion of Polynesian dispersion across the Pacific, although its premisis runs counter to prevailing theory. Heyerdahl and five fellow adventurers went to Peru, where they constructed a pae-pae raft from balsa wood and other native materials, a raft that they called the Kon-Tiki. The Kon-Tiki expedition was inspired by old reports and drawings made by the Spanish Conquistadors of Inca rafts, and by native legends and archaeological evidence suggesting contact between South America and Polynesia. After a 101 day, 4,300 mile (8,000 km) journey across the Pacific Ocean, Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki smashed into the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947.
Kon-Tiki demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific with relative ease and safety, especially to the west (with the wind). The raft proved to be highly maneuverable, and fish congregated between the two balsa logs in such numbers that ancient sailors could have possibly relied on fish for hydration in the absence of other sources of fresh water. Inspired by Kon-Tiki, other rafts have repeated the voyage. Heyerdahl's book about the expedition, Kon-Tiki, has been translated into over 50 languages. The documentary film of the expedition, itself entitled Kon-Tiki, won an Academy Award in 1951.
“Anthropologists continue to believe,” Wikipedia’s history of the expedition states, “based on linguistic, physical, and genetic evidence, that Polynesia was settled from west to east, migration having begun from the Asian mainland. There are controversial indications, though, of some sort of South American/Polynesian contact, most notably in the fact that the South American sweet potato served as a dietary staple throughout much of Polynesia.
“Heyerdahl noted that in Incan legend there was a sun-god named Con-Tici Viracocha who was the supreme head of the mythical fair-skinned people in Peru. The original name for Virakocha was Kon-Tiki or Illa-Tiki, which means Sun-Tiki or Fire-Tiki. Kon-Tiki was high priest and sun-king of these legendary ‘white men’ who left enormous ruins on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The legend continues with the mysterious bearded white men being attacked by a chief named Cari who came from the Coquimbo Valley. They had a battle on an island in Lake Titicaca, and the fair race was massacred. However, Kon-Tiki and his closest companions managed to escape and later arrived on the Pacific coast.”
“When the Spaniards came to Peru, Heyerdahl asserted, the Incas told them that the colossal monuments that stood deserted about the landscape were erected by a race of white gods who had lived there before the Incas themselves became rulers. The Incas described these ‘white gods’ as wise, peaceful instructors who had originally come from the north in the ‘morning of time’ and taught the Incas’ primitive forefathers architecture as well as manners and customs. They were unlike other Native Americans in that they had ‘white skins and long beards’ and were taller than the Incas. The Incas said that the ‘white gods’ had then left as suddenly as they had come and fled westward across the Pacific. After they had left, the Incas themselves took over power in the country.”
“Heyerdahl said that when the Europeans first came to the Pacific islands, they were astonished that they found some of the natives to have relatively light skins and beards. There were whole families that had pale skin, hair varying in color from reddish to blonde. In contrast, most of the Polynesians had golden-brown skin, raven-black hair, and rather flat noses. Heyerdahl claimed that when Jakob Roggeveen first ‘discovered’ Easter Island in 1722, he supposedly noticed that many of the natives were white-skinned. Heyerdahl claimed that these people could count their ancestors who were ‘white-skinned’ right back to the time of Tiki and Hotu Matua, when they first came sailing across the sea ‘from a mountainous land in the east which was scorched by the sun.’ The ethnographic evidence for these claims is outlined in Heyerdahl’s book Aku Aku: The Secret of Easter Island.”
“Heyerdahl proposed that Tiki’s neolithic people colonized the then-uninhabited Polynesian islands as far north as Hawaii, as far south as New Zealand, as far east as Easter Island, and as far west as Samoa and Tonga around 500 CE. They supposedly sailed from Peru to the Polynesian islands on pae-paes – large rafts built from balsa logs, complete with sails and each with a small cottage. They built enormous stone statues carved in the image of human beings on Pitcairn, the Marquesas, and Easter Island that resembled those in Peru. They also built huge pyramids on Tahiti and Samoa with steps like those in Peru. But all over Polynesia, Heyerdahl found indications that Tiki’s peaceable race had not been able to hold the islands alone for long. He found evidence that suggested that seagoing war canoes as large as Viking ships and lashed together two and two had brought Stone Age Northwest American Indians to Polynesia around 1100 CE, and they mingled with Tiki’s people. The oral history of the people of Easter Island, at least as it was documented by Heyerdahl, is completely consistent with this theory, as is the archaeological record he examined (Heyerdahl 1958). In particular, Heyerdahl obtained a radiocarbon date of 400 CE for a charcoal fire located in the pit that was held by the people of Easter Island to have been used as an ‘oven’ by the ‘Long Ears,’ which Heyerdahl's Rapa Nui sources, reciting oral tradition, identified as a white race which had ruled the island in the past (Heyerdahl 1958).”
“Heyerdahl further argued in his book American Indians in the Pacific that the current inhabitants of Polynesia migrated not from an Asian source, but via an alternate route. He proposed that Polynesians traveled with the wind along the North Pacific current. These migrants then arrived in British Columbia. Heyerdahl called contemporary tribes of British Columbia, such as the Tlingit and Haida, descendants of these migrants. Heyerdahl claimed that cultural and physical similarities existed between these British Columbian tribes, Polynesians, and the Old World source. Heyerdahl’s claims aside, however, there is no evidence that the Tlingit, Haida or other British Columbian tribes have an affinity with Polynesians.”
Furthermore, as intriguing as Heyerdahls’ theory of Polynesian origins is, it has never gained acceptance by anthropologists. Physical and cultural evidence has long suggested that Polynesia was settled from west to east, migration having begun from the Asian mainland, not South America. In the late 1990s, genetic testing found that the mitochondrial DNA of the Polynesians is more similar to people from Southeast Asia than to people from South America, showing that their ancestors most likely came from Asia. Easter Islanders are of Polynesian descent.
Further DNA studies conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s indicate that Polynesian ancestry is placed at Taiwan.
Yet, the issue of the South American sweet potato remains a mystery. In recent times (2022), DNA samples of a human skeleton in the Amazon points to Polynesian ancestry.
Glenn Hening, Surfrider Foundation founder and president of the Groundswell Society, agrees that Peruvians could have been the first of what we might term “surfers.” Hening travelled to Peru to experience las caballitos de totora first-hand. Although he thinks Peruvians might have been the “first surfers,” he is not willing to go as far as Felipe Pomar. In a personal email to Pomar, in 2009, Hening pointed out that “Your theory about surfing craft being developed first, and from them then fishing craft, simply cannot be supported by the evidence. The evidence is that reed craft were being used up to 3,500 years ago to provide food for the large populations at Caral, Chan Chan, Tucume, etc. Your evidence of personal craft is only 1200 years old – and consists of the two ceramics at the Breuning Museum.”
“… my contention,” Felipe responded, “is not that they were first built to have fun and then improved for fishing. My contention is that more important than having fun, or even fishing, was surviving.
“The design tells me they were designed to ride waves. The reason riding the wave was so important is because to make it safely to the beach from outside (the ocean side of the breaking waves) you had to avoid getting caught by a set of breakers.
“If you got caught you could drown, or lose your fish (if you had been fishing).
“Riding the wave enabled the Caballito rider to rapidly ride a wave in and avoid getting smashed and upended/capsized by the waves. Riding a wave kept him out of harms way. Thus the Caballitos were designed to ride waves and used for fishing (by the fishermen), recreation (by the sons of the fishermen), and sport (by warriors, priests, chiefs, or others with free time seeking fitness, sport, or power).”
According to Thor Heyerdahl: “Knowing the people on the coast today, this would be the first place where surfing could have developed. 5,000 years ago, they were mentally and physically exactly like us. They would do precisely as you and I do. If we have time for leisure – and in those days the royalty on the coast had all the leisure time they could ask for – there’d be nothing more natural than for them to start surfing in these waves.”
“In areas of constant surf,” Felipe Pomar maintains, “the people had to design a unipersonal boat that could get them through the braking waves (to beyond the breaking waves) and then through the breaking wave zone to get back to shore. Riding the wave was the safest, fastest, and often the only way to get back to shore.
“The Caballito is [the pre-Incan]… design for areas with constant surf where you have to ride the wave to get back to shore. Look at the design on the caballito: length, width, scoop, bottom contour. Compare it to older surfboard design’s and Kayak’s made for riding waves. You can’t avoid seeing that the Caballito was designed to ride waves of the sea. And it is extremely sophisticated and functional considering when it was developed and the materials they had to work with.”
“In my opinion,” continued Felipe, “what Peru has is the kind of ideal coastline for riding waves to develope and whether they were riding them on a reed caballito or riding them on some other kind of plank or just bodysurfing, the constant surf on the Peruvian coast is, in many places, like Waikiki. You know, you have the rollers coming in from way out and you can catch them and ride for long distance. So, for that reason, it’s perfectly understandable that surfing – riding waves – would develop on that kind of coastline.”
“It is important that the Peruvians know our history in regard to Totora Horse,” Felipe Pomar emphasized.
“There is no doubt that Peruvian societies going back almost 3500 years had used the ‘caballitos’ (Spanish for ‘little horses’) for fishing purposes,” wrote Glenn Hening in “Riding Waves Two Thousand Years Ago,” “and Heyerdahl told us in an interview that those societies would have enjoyed the surf just as we do. Dr. Heyerdahl had also developed theories about ancient Peruvians sailing to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and had confirmed the existence of stone sculptures found there depicting reed boats. Coupled with research connecting Rapa Nui to the rest of Polynesia through the ‘wayfinding’ voyages, a tenuous link could be made from Peru to Polynesia to Hawai‘i.
Hening points to the relationship ancient Peruvians seemed to have with the ocean. “Peruvian cultures had an almost religious relationship with waves,” Glenn wrote, “… It may be very difficult to prove surfing came to Hawai’i from Peru, but with more research in the ruins of temples and cities along the coast of northern Peru, we should eventually find definitive evidence that people were riding waves there at least a thousand years before any evidence exists of surfing in Hawai‘i. Why? Because we already have proof that riding a reed boat, and not using it for fishing, was a concept not unknown to the ancient Peruvians.
“When I say ancient Peruvians, I am talking about societies that existed before the Incas. The ruins at Machu Pichu are famous around the world, and for most people, the Incas represent the history of Peru before the arrival of the Spanish. However, there were well-developed cultures prior to the Incans, and huge cities, temples and pyramids can be found along the coast of Northern Peru that pre-date the Incas by hundreds, and in two cases, thousand of years.”
“Those societies,” Glenn went on, “notably the Chimu and the Moche, depended largely on the ocean for their protein, and for them the ocean was a mystical place of unlimited power. They repeatedly used waves as a design element in their clothing, jewelry, and architecture. In fact, a ceremonial courtyard found in the Chan Chan ruins, not more than a kilometer from the surf, is ringed by walls covered with parallel lines, the purpose of which was to surround the people participating in the ceremonies with the power of the sea. In this case, waves were used to decorate a ‘church’, and in other societies pre-dating Chan Chan waves were used on the golden crowns of kings and their clothing. And one priesthood used waves as the symbol of their power as they exerted a strong influence over the government and daily lives in cities of up to 50,000 people.”
“To me,” Glenn continued, “the veneration of waves by ancient Peruvians is entirely understandable. In fact, surfers everywhere cover their walls with pictures of swells, tubes, and rolling waves. It was breathtaking to visit a temple that was built overlooking a left point break along the coast north of Huanchaco and see waves six feet high carved in an endless chain along a wall still not fully excavated. As a surfer, to touch those waves, even as I could hear the roar of real surf off in the distance, was an important experience for me...”
For Glenn Hening, his conversion to viewing Peruvians as the first surfers came when he viewed “A ceramic, possibly almost 1200 years old… unearthed in 1938 by a German archaeologist, Franz Wasserman.” This ceramic “depicts a Peruvian god riding the crescent moon across the night sky, and the moon was drawn in the form of a reed boat. To me, that indicates the artist, whoever he or she was, conceived of using a reed craft for something that we could call ‘surfing.’
“Now, other evidence exists of the use of reeds to built small ‘floats’ for going out in the surf to complete ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies, given the strength and courage it takes to challenge the endless lines of surf that hit the coast of Peru. But the god riding his ‘moonship’ was a very exciting step forward in the search for the first surfer.
“As a result, I strongly believe that with more research and archaeological investigations at sites in Northern Peru, there is a good chance of finding conclusive proof that ancient Peruvians were using reed craft not only for fishing, but also recreational purposes. As Dr. Heyerdahl said, ‘People haven’t changed in fundamental ways for thousands of years, and if something is fun for us, it certainly would have been fun for them. And that includes surfing.’”
Speaking personally, Glenn wrote, “As a surfer, my memories of my trips to Peru are filled with visions of endless waves to the horizon, long walls of peeling tubes that I could ride for hundreds of meters, and the roar of surf all day and all night. As a professional historian, I was fascinated by the reed boat ceramics and the use of waves to decorate royal clothes, temples, and artwork found at many archaeological sites...”
“When Hening started researching the coastal cultures of Northern Peru,” wrote Marcus Sanders in “Lines in the Dust – The Groundswell Society Goes to Peru 2002,” published in The Surfer’s Path, “around the fishing town of Huanchaco (about 500 miles north of Lima), he started questioning the entrenched idea that surfing began in Hawai‘i. He wasn’t the first. Some surfing historians – including Peruvian businessman and cultural historian Fortunato Quesada and Peru’s ex-world champion, Felipe Pomar – assert that the ancient Peruvians took to the waves in their ancient reed craft (called caballitos, or “little horses”) thousands of years ago. But Hening has been one of the most diligent in researching the possibilities, especially in the last couple of years.
“… In 1994, after getting fairly fed up with Surfrider’s continual shift away from what he saw as its original vision – that is, a ‘Cousteau Society for surfers’ – Hening decided to create the Groundswell Society, which was intended to be a kind of non-corporate surfing think tank…”
“Hening’s third question, about the history of the place, can be found in the elaborate architecture, ceramics and drawing of ancient Peruvians on display in the museums and various archaeological sites along the coast. It should come as no surprise that everything had a deep maritime influence, with examples of curling waves, breaking waves, lines to the horizon and peeling pointbreaks. There’s even a 2000-year-old temple located right on a cliff above a Honolua Bay-style left. ‘They didn’t’ build in the middle of the beach,’ Hening points out. ‘They built it right where there were lines bending in and peeling perfectly.’”
“Surfing’s direct influence is one thing,” Glenn acknowledged. “Having one’s life defined by the power of the ocean is something a little different. Surfing is a small part of our relationship with the ocean. These cultures needed the ocean to eat, but they also recognized the geometry of waves, and situated their temples not at close-out surf, but at perfect points. They were cognizant of how waves break. And they were cognizant of curling waves, of tubes – you can see it in their architecture; there are ‘Moche’ ceramics dating back to AD 200 that depict a deity riding the crescent moon as if it was a reed boat. Of course, there’s more research to be done – nothing’s been proven. But every year more and more sites are being discovered that give us more information about how people’s lives were informed by waves thousands of years ago.”
When asked about how Polynesians and, in particular, Hawaiians felt about the Peru theory as first point for surfing, Felipe Pomar responded, “A few might like, and some not, but… There is no doubt that the art of surfing was born on the coast of Peru. This is because the former caballitos were running waves in Peru thousands of years before there were settlers in the islands of Hawaii. It is also true that in Hawaii, the art developed rapidly with new materials, and the exceptional conditions of their sea. But the oldest examples of people running waves have them in Peru.”