Surfing has been one of the world’s most popular water sports for centuries. With roots dating back thousands of years, surfing has (for the most part) remained largely unchanged.
Since the sport of surfing exploded in international popularity in the early 1900s, it has become a worldwide phenomenon, with surfers of all ages and from all around the globe taking part in surfing for leisure, competitions, or both.
But with such a rich history behind surfing, who actually invented it in the first place? As it turns out, that’s a pretty complicated question. There are several reasons why it’s hard to pin down who first decided to ride the waves.
Surfing has evolved since its beginnings, in terms of its cultural history and in the way it’s done. Because surfing has changed over time, it’s hard to narrow down who created surfing as we know it today.
In this article, we’ll take you through the history of surfing, looking at how it has evolved since its creation, to try and figure out who actually invented it in the first place. So come along with us as we explore the history of this great sport!
Where Did Surfing Come From?
While surfing as we know it today is one of the most popular water sports in the world, it didn’t really have much of an international presence until relatively recently. It wasn’t until the 1900s that surfing took its hold internationally, and its global popularity is even more recent. Before then, however, surfing had a rich history spanning hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The earliest evidence for people surfing comes from Ancient Polynesia, in modern-day Samoa, Tonga, and (most notably) Hawaii. Archeologists have found cave paintings dating back to the 12th century that show Ancient Polynesians riding the waves on carved wooden boards.
For Ancient Polynesians, surfing wasn’t just for sport or leisure – it was a way of life. Surfing was more than a fun pastime, and there were deep cultural and societal implications tied to surfing. The Ancient Hawaiians saw surfing as a form of spiritual worship, and carving and shaping a surfboard was a significant religious ritual.
Because of the more isolated position of Polynesia, surfing didn’t really spread internationally until people had the ability to travel to and from these island nations more effectively. Captain James Cook was the first to write about surfing in 1769 during his visit to Tahiti.
In the early-to-mid 1800s, as Europeans explored and colonized the Pacific islands, surfing became suppressed and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that its popularity began to reemerge. But as surfing started to travel across the waves, it shifted from its original cultural significance into a more generalized sport.
The Rise Of East Coast Surf-mania
Towards the end of the 19th century, as travel between Hawaii and mainland USA became more prevalent, surfing began to travel across too.
In 1885, a group of Hawaiian princes (David Kawananakoa, Jonah Kuhio Kalanian’ole, Edward Keli’iahonui, and Elle Mancini) took a break from their college studies in California and traveled to Santa Cruz. Here they used hand-carved redwood boards to surf along the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, much to the amazement of locals.
Later, George Freeth (who is known as “the first white man to master surfing”) helped to popularize surfing in California by showing off his surfing skills at Huntington Beach. This pushed surfing into the public eye, and it exploded in popularity.
The rise of surfing as a sport, along with the introduction of ‘surfer culture’ and an increasing presence in pop culture, pushed surfing’s popularity throughout the USA and beyond.
While this was happening, surfing was also spreading throughout the rest of the world. Surfing became a popular sport all across the world, with countries like New Zealand and Australia fostering their own cultures surrounding surfing.
Famous surfers, most notably legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku, displayed their skills across the globe and helped cement surfing as the sport we all know and love.
So Who Actually Invented Surfing?
As you can see, there’s a lot of history when it comes to surfing that makes finding out its inventor practically impossible.
Without clear records and historical documents, the best answer is that it was most likely invented in Ancient Polynesia probably at least 1000 years ago; it may be far from a specific person or timeframe, but there aren’t any records stating who first had the idea to ride a board on the waves.
However, there is a fairly significant difference between the traditional, culturally and religiously significant act of surfing in Ancient Polynesia, and the extreme sport that we all know today.
The suppression of native culture and pastimes during the colonization of Hawaii in the 1800s (and its eventual resurgence) had a big effect on how surfing was viewed and done, which can be enough to set modern surfing apart completely.
But even if you look at them as two separate concepts, it’s still fairly complicated to say who invented it!
While early international surfers like George Freeth helped to popularize the sport along the West Coast, his success was preceded by the Hawaiian princes surfing along the San Lorenzo River.
They, in turn, came after the local Hawaiians in Waikiki began teaching tourists how to surf. Again, there doesn’t seem to be one person who invented or popularized modern surfing.
With that said, however, Duke Kahanamoku stands tall as one of the most influential and famous surfers of all time, and his incredible skills pushed the sport into the global eye and helped to make surfing the sport we know today.
While there isn’t anyone we can credit as the inventor of surfing, The Duke definitely deserves the title of: “the father of modern surfing”.
Surfing is one of the most popular water sports (and sports in general) in the world today, and people all across the globe share their love for riding the waves.
While we might not know who exactly invented surfing, it’s clear that there were many influential figures in surfing history that helped to shape surfing into the sport as we know it today.
Whether you want to credit the Ancient Polynesians who first rode the waves or surfers like George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku that brought the art of surfing to the world at large, we can all agree that the spirit lives on in everyone who loves to surf!