Southern California is a well-known mecca for surfing and surf culture, but the history of surfing goes much further back than you might expect.
The human race has a long and intimate history with the ocean. The earliest human migrations out of Africa are thought to have occurred through coastal routes. Some of the earliest examples of human art and jewelry come in the form of beads made from the shells of marine mollusks. Our ties with the ocean are even embedded in our brain biochemistry. Seafood is the major dietary source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid which promotes brain growth and overall health in mammals. DHA is thought to have played a major role in the evolution of large brain size in humans.
Considering this long lasting relationship between humans and the ocean, it is no surprise that the ocean also serves as a playground for human entertainment.
While it is likely that humans have been body surfing (without a board) for tens of thousands of years, surfing with a board appears to have several independent and more recent origins.
Pre-Incan civilizations in the Americas rode waves using boards called Caballitos de Totora (straw seahorses) over 2000 years ago. These boards, which somewhat resemble stand-up paddle boards, were used by the Mohica people as a tool for fishing. While the extent to which these boards were used for entertainment is unknown, one can only imagine. Once the food has been caught, what could be better than riding the waves for a few hours while your feast is cooking?
Deeper into the Pacific Ocean, an art form more akin to modern surfing had developed thousands of years ago across a number of islands in Polynesia. When the first Europeans arrived in Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii, they witnessed a culture that not only used surfing for entertainment, but a culture which had also integrated this activity into its religion and social structure.
The Hawaiians called surfing he’e nalu which translates into “wave sliding”. If the surf was not good on a given, day, the people would turn to their priests (Kahunas) who led the people in a prayer for bigger waves. Constructing a surfboard was not an engineering feat, but a spiritual ceremony led by priests. Trees were dug up so boards could be constructed out of wood, and fish were placed in the hole where the tree had once been as an offering to the Gods. Boards were made with myriad shapes and sizes, some as long as 24 feet in length.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that surfing finally arrived in California. Three Hawaiian princes studying at a boarding school in San Mateo built redwood surfboards and used them to surf the waters at the mouth of the San Lorenzo river in 1885. Surfing gained more widespread attention in California in 1907, when railroad tycoon Henry Huntington brought George Freeth, who many consider the father of modern surfing, from Hawaii to California as part of a publicity stunt to help promote the Los-Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad. Shortly after this, surfing also began to gain popularity on the East Coast, with surfing communities forming in North Carolina and Florida.
For the next half-century, surfing largely remained part of an underground culture. With the release of the movie Gidget in 1959, however, surfing was finally cast into the mainstream. Two years later, the Beach Boys (who actually didn’t surf very much) helped to immortalize surfing as an integral part of southern California culture.
With surfing slated to be a part of the summer Olympics in 2021, what started as a niche cultural phenomenon, has finally been embraced by an entire planet. It looks like surfing is here to stay.
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