The world's surfing population is estimated to be between 23 and 35 million, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers' Association. One of the oldest sports on the planet, historians now believe surfing may have originated among Peruvian fishermen around 5,000 years ago.
Prehistoric stone carvings depict surfers in Chan Chan, Peru, dating back to around 3000 BC. According to evidence unearthed recently by archaeologists, rather than surfing for fun, the men learned how to master the ocean to help them catch more fish, using reed rafts surfboard-style.
Surfing also became a leisure pastime of the Peruvian culture over time and today, the destination boasts some of the best beaches in the world for surfers of all abilities.
© Añorando el Mar / Longing for the Sea / cc-by-2.0
Archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have combined their academic skills to piece together the history of the ancient Peruvians. No written word was found, so they based their theories on drawings and carvings unearthed during archaeological digs.
The theories have been published in a book, 5000 Years of Riding Waves, written mainly by the late Oscar Tramontana and finished off by Carlos Pardo. It puts forward some fascinating ideas about the history of surfing, including the theory that Peru was the birthplace of the sport; challenging the popular belief it was Polynesia.
The ocean was the most reliable source of sustenance for the Peruvian people, shaping the ancient inhabitants' way of life. The northern coast was home to thousands of fishing communities and the fishermen used long, narrow rafts made from the totora reed. They fished using spears, hooks, nets and crab traps.
Fragile but secure, the reed raft was around five metres long. Like a surfboard, it floated on the sea's surface, with the man using his hands to paddle through the breaks.
After battling through the whitewater, he would throw his nets and hooks out into the sea, spending several hours fishing, before transporting his catch to the shore. He placed the fish into a net bag and secured it to his raft. This technique is still used today.
Surfing for pleasure
Over time, the fishermen began to modify their totora raft. The reed plant was long and triangular and they experimented with multiple different designs until they found the ideal craft that enabled them to go out to sea smoothly. They built a "rocker" into the board to prevent nose-diving when the waves pushed them forward.
Many years later, reed boats were named "caballitos de totora" (little reed horses) by Spanish sailors, who arrived in Peru and saw the indigenous fisherman out on the water.
Paintings and engravings suggest the fishermen rode their reed boats like surfboards, standing up as they returned to the shore with a haul of fish. This idea is more than conjecture, as the historic pictures give credence to the belief that this was the origin of early surfing.
No-one knows for sure when surfing for pleasure, rather than for fishing, began in Peru. While the young fishermen would train throughout the summer, going in and out of the sea ‘til they honed their skills, it follows that at some point, they realised what an incredible experience it was when not weighed down with a net full of fish!
Chan Chan City
Northern Peru is filled with evidence of a society related closely to the sea, where the men made their living from fishing. This lifestyle was depicted on the walls of historic buildings at Chan Chan City, the home of the ancient Chimú people, before the region fell to the Incas.
There were an estimated 100,000 people living there and an archaeological dig found numerous paintings and engravings of fishing scenes including a series showing waves, sea birds, nets and men on long, slim rafts resembling surfboards. In particular, the Corredor de los Peces y las Aves has paintings of big swells filled with fish, recognising Peru's ancient seafaring history.
Today, the ancient way of fishing remains a familiar sight in Huanchaco, a small coastal town in Peru where there are consistent waves. The caballitos de totoras can be seen gliding onto the beach every morning with their catch.
We're still discovering new information today from prehistoric times. The archaeological site near Trujillo, on the northern coast of Peru, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986 and continues to carry out fact-finding research.
Surfing as a sport today
Huanchaco became a World Surfing Reserve in 2013, putting it in the global spotlight as a surfing destination that should be on everyone's bucket list. It then began to gain recognition as being the ancient birthplace of surfing.
The importance of surfing in Peruvian culture today can be seen all over the coastal regions. The best beaches are in the north, but you don't need to be there to see the relevance of surfing to the Peruvian way of life.
Hundreds of miles south from the shores where surfing may have originated, the beaches just outside Lima are a popular destination for surfers, even on colder winter's days. Surfing is a popular pastime along the entire length of the Pacific coast of Peru.
Of course, surfboards have come a long way since their ancient predecessors. Surfboards known as "alaia" (hand-crafted for Polynesian royalty in the 18th century) were said to have formed the basis of modern surfboards. The medium-size, thin, alaia board was the first surfboard that made it easier for surfers to stand up and ride a wave that curls and breaks.
The golden era of surfing in the 1960s spurred the shortboard revolution, when boards went from being around 10ft long to 8ft. By 1970, the board size had reduced further to between 5ft and 6ft, enabling surfers to adopt the lower and more aggressive stance that we know today.
Here at Ocean Magic, we hand-craft custom surfboards at our Cornwall factory. Contact us today for more details.