Surfing is as ancient as almost anything that involves humans and rudimentary tools. We used to believe that it was the Polynesians who pioneered the art of wave riding, famously documented by Captian Cook and crew when they arrived in the Pacific Isles. However, there is increasing evidence that people have ridden waves across the world for thousands of years.

What is surfing?

It makes sense to establish a clear definition of what surfing actually means. Does someone standing in a canoe that is being propelled across the ocean surface by a wave count? What came before canoes? Does someone standing on a raft that is bouncing through whitewater qualify?

Surfing as a purely functional activity – i.e. enabling someone to return quickly to shore on some form of watercraft – has undoubtedly been around for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Ever since man ventured into the ocean on chunks of wood, waves would have helped him return to shore.

Many of our ancestors would have actively avoided the breaking water because it is inherently hazardous, but a few thrillseekers would almost certainly have discovered the benefits and, perhaps, pleasure in being driven ashore by a breaking wave.

Perhaps the definition of surfing should be, “the act of standing upon a watercraft that is being propelled by a wave and deriving pleasure from the experience.”

Alternatively, “riding a breaking wave for the purpose of pleasure or sport.”

Why do people surf?

As defined above, crucial determinant as to whether an individual is surfing – at least in the modern context of the word – is the element of pleasure, rather than the experience being purely functional.

So, what if an ancient Indian fisherman enjoyed catching and riding a wave as he returned to shore from fishing? The wave riding is incidental and functional. The purpose of him being on a craft in the water is to secure a meal. However, the surfing of the wave on the way back to the beach requires skill and almost certainly provides the fisherman with a few moments of exhilaration, followed by a sense of satisfaction when the ride is successfully completed. That qualifies as surfing in my books.

Now, what if the fisherman passes the skill of riding those waves on to his sons and daughters. They may never paddle out on their rafts or canoes expressly to catch waves – remember canoes would have been valuable and time-intensive to construct – but they may have learnt how to match their paddle speed to the incoming wave, angle the craft along an unbroken wall and to avoid nosediving or getting stuck in the impact zone. Perhaps the more skilled fisherman took great pride in their mastery of returning to the shore amongst the breakers.

This is fledgeling surf culture. It is borne out of necessity, but so is almost every pursuit that we now consider to be leisure. Rock climbing, javelin, running, game fishing, all began with a very real need.

When a society can meet their basic survival requirements – food, shelter, safety – and have either a surplus of resource or time, then individuals tend to get creative and dedicate time to activities that are fun. We paint pictures, we innovate, we pursue challenge purely for pleasure, sport or status.

The first surfers – those who leapt aboard the hedonic treadmill of seeking waves purely for pleasure – must have had access to good surf, wood, and time. It’s no coincidence that Hawaiian royalty possessed all three.

Who invented surfing?

Around the world, coastal communities have ventured into the ocean to fish and travel for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, a human predecessor, Homo Erectus, navigated vast stretches of open ocean up to 1.8 million years ago. Did Homo Erectus surf? Pure speculation, but the name suggests that ‘upright man’ just might have been standing when weaving that raft to shore.

Because rafts and boats were made of wood very few have survived. The oldest watercraft that looks vaguely surfable is the Pesse Dugout canoe, dated to 8000 BCE and discovered in Holland. Those ancient Dutch may have been onto something when you consider the relatively sophisticated design of this craft. In fact, you might marvel at how little we’ve progressed in 10,000 years (not taking into account aircraft carriers and cruise liners, of course).

I’m quietly confident that I could catch a few waves on the Pesse Dugout.

Ancient surfing is, for the most part, a daydream. We’ll never know if surfing existed in prehistoric times, so should we even consider it in serious conversation? Of course, we should!

As this article will continue with sections on:

  • The Polynesians
  • The Africans
  • The Chinese
  • The Indians
  • The Middle East

Until next time!