The Global Spread and Evolution of Surfing

Where Surfing Originated

It was once believed that only native Hawaiians could master surfing. But in the early 1900’s George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku rediscovered the sport.

These men were fishermen and rode these boards, referred to as Caballito de Totora (little reed horses), into the waves like a horse. These were not the thick surfboards we are accustomed to seeing today.


Many people consider Hawaii to be the birthplace of surfing culture. However, it is possible that it actually originated in Peru. Evidence suggests that surfers have been riding waves for 2000 years along the north coast of Peru. The oldest known cave paintings depict surfers.

It is believed that surfers were mostly fishermen and used a board to glide between swells to their destination or to fish from the surface. Surfing gradually became an important part of Polynesian culture and was enshrined in the religion.

The introduction of Christian missionaries in Hawaii forced surfers to change a lot of things including their lifestyle. Surfing lost its strong influence but never vanished completely. In 1885 three teenage Hawaiian princes surfed the mouth of San Lorenzo River on redwood boards. George Freeth demonstrated surfing in 1907 as a publicity stunt and it took off. This opened doors for surfers from all over the world to enjoy their sport.


It’s widely accepted that surfing began in Polynesia, which is a group of islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean. Cave paintings have been discovered that show ancient versions of surfing. Then the Polynesians brought the sport to Hawaii, and it spread from there.

Surfing was an important part of Polynesia ’s culture. People practiced it for exercise, spirituality and competition. They also viewed it as a way to earn respect in society. Whether they were body surfing, canoeing or sailing, the Polynesians loved being in the ocean.

They sailed in great ocean-going canoes and travelled long distances, exploring almost all of the islands in the Pacific. The ancestors of Polynesians are believed to have traveled from South America, using thermal air currents that helped them drift across the vast expanse of the ocean to their new home. Then they settled the islands. They were a highly sophisticated seafaring culture, and the sport of surfing was an integral part of their lifestyle.


Many consider Hawaii the birthplace of modern surfing. It was here that the sport flourished during the reign of King Kamehameha, who was a master at riding waves. Before European contact, Hawaiians enjoyed the sport as a pastime and it was open to both men and women.

After Captain Cook’s arrival, the kapu system was enforced and traditional Hawaiian practices were discouraged as missionaries arrived to convert the native population to Christianity. As the king’s rule diminished, so did interest in surfing and other pastimes like hula dancing.

In the late 1800s Hawaiian tourism began to boom and a revived interest in surfing emerged along with Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku who helped introduce the world to this new sport. He is credited with bringing surfing to the world and his role in reviving the sport was honored on a 2002 first class letter rate postage stamp by the United States Postal Service. Surfing was then, as it is now, a lifestyle, not just a sport.

Around the World

While there are other accounts of wave riding that go back centuries in West Africa and Peru, it was in Hawaii that surfing truly advanced to the level we know and love today. From there, the sport spread all over the world, and became popularized when Henry Huntington hired George Freeth to perform surfing demonstrations along the California coast.

Surfing was first introduced to Australia in 1914 when Duke Kahanamoku built a wooden olo board on the beach at Freshwater and blew the crowd away with his amazing surfing skills. The board he used is still on display in Sydney at the Freshwater Life Saving Club.

In the 1800s, famous authors like Jack London and Mark Twain piqued interest in surfing and helped it gain popularity among Americans. This newfound interest in the sport then spread to the tropics, where Hawaiians dominated and developed their unique style of surfing. The world is now fascinated by this incredibly exhilarating and bonding activity, which has spanned across generations thanks to the efforts of people like Freeth and Kahanamoku.

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