Papa He’e Nalu vs. Caballito de Totora: The Hunt for the World’s First Surfers

November 1, 2010

There’s no denying the fact that in the last 50 years the sport of surfing has gone remarkably global.  Dedicated wavehunters and exploratory surf charters tirelessly lust for increasingly obscure spots (see: Garrett Mcnamara surfs a calving glacier), while groms from Ghana to Guinea to way Caballito de Totora in Huanchaco, Perudown in G-Land can be found walking urban streets and feral jungles toting a board and a smile.

While nearly all can agree that the sport of surfing is more popular now than it has ever been, the mystical fact remains that someone, somewhere, at some indeterminable date in history, first had the idea to stand up on a board and ride a wave towards the shore. Considering the current reality of paddling out to your favorite break and having to share it with 10 or 20 of your closest “friends”, it’s a tantalizing thought to think that for a brief moment in time, somebody conceivably occupied the title as the only surfer in the world.

There’s a dirty little secret about that first surfer, however: whoever it was, he wasn’t Hawaiian. In fact, he may have not even been Polynesian. Going strictly off of archeological evidence, history tells us that the first person to catch the stoke of surfing actually came from…Peru?

Though scholarly debates currently rage over the exact origins of the sport, heavy evidence suggests that the world’s first surfers were the Peruvian fisherman who rode the waves in their woven reed boats known today as caballito de totora, or “little reed horses”. Nearly 15 ft. in length and Caballito de Totora in Huanchaco, Peruweighing nearly 65 lbs (the wooden olo boards reserved for Hawaiian royalty could measure anywhere from 18-25 ft.), the totora have long, slender bows that are crafted for breaking through the consistent Peruvian surf, and wide stable compartments towards the rear that can accommodate the rider and that day’s catch. While created primarily as a fishing craft, somewhere along the way a young hotshot Peruvian decided to stand up on the totora as the boat rode its way back towards shore, and from his antics the sport of surfing was born. The earliest archeological proof of this newfound aquatic tomfoolery is found on pottery shards from the Chimu people which depict paintings of men standing on the totora and sliding down the face of a wave. Scientific date of the ceramics: 1000 B.C.

Heading across the Pacific, nearly all scholars of Polynesian migration agree that the Hawaiian Islands weren’t settled until around 400 A.D. In other words, according to science, it’s official that the world’s first wave wasn’t ridden at Ho’okipa. With the Hawaiian Islands vacant of human life while fisherman were scoring waves in Peru, this doesn’t mean that the Caballito de Totora in Huanchaco, PeruPolynesians who would eventually settle the Hawaiian Islands weren’t riding waves of their own in some other part of the Polynesian triangle . While the first official record of surfing in Polynesia comes from Captain Cook’s exploration of the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i) in 1778, given the aquatic prowess exhibited by the ali’i and commoners alike, common logic would suggest that the sport of kings was being practiced for centuries prior, if not millennia. The only problem? With no written language and a history based entirely in oral tradition and chant, the scientific community has no empirical way of determining when exactly that first Polynesian surfer was.

According to Carlos, however, a local Peruvian who has been riding totora through the surf of Huanchaco, Peru for over 40 years, there is no doubt that the sport of surfing was birthed from these dusty shores. A symbol of national pride to the Peruvian people, the beaches along Huanchaco are lined with scores of the traditional watercraft, with oarsmen more than willing to take visitors out for a spin in the frigid waters. Though proud of their heritage, nowadays Huanchaco’s shores are lined with modern surf A wave in Huanchaco, Perushops featuring modern boards, and far more people are out riding the small chips of fiberglass and fins than the hulking, waterlogged totoras. An interesting wrinkle in the saga? The local Peruvian term for a modern day surfboard: Tabla Hawaiana.

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