Thanks to the caballito or tup, ancient Peruvian fishermen managed to overcome the barrier of the waves that lay between them and the immense biological richness of the sea. Over time the primitive fishermen developed new fishing and navigation techniques, each more sophisticated than the last. They managed to build vessels that let them not only enter the sea in pursuit of food, but also to transport large shipments of fish and undertake voyages to faraway ports, where the inhabitants became fruitful business partners in commerce.
In 1947 Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl made a voyage of 101 days, crossing the 4,300 miles between the port of Callao and the Tuamotu islands in Polynesia. Using an ancient Peruvian design, he made the journey on a traditionally built balsa wood raft named the Kon-Tiki. Proving the nautical capacity of such rafts allows us to presume that there was established contact between Peru and Polynesia well before European contact. Heyerdahl’s voyage, in combination with what the Spanish chroniclers stated when describing the Peruvian sailors they first encountered, confirms that these people were expert navigators and their arrival in Polynesian was possible. These primitive Peruvian seafarers could have been the first to introduce and share the sport of surfing.
“They sailed on a vessel where they had a crew of twenty people…it looks like they can fit up to thirty barrels, the platform and keel was made of a reed so thick that it resembled a wood post and those wood posts, called henequen, were tied with ropes, they had built other spaces above the platform with a different and thinner reed also tied with ropes and on those spaces the crew and the merchandise were accommodated… they brought many pieces of silver and gold to barter… with shells, and out of those shells they made small beads creating colored necklaces similar to coral necklaces and white beans, they almost filled the whole vessel with these shells…” —Samano-Xerex Narrative (1528)
In 1527 Spanish sailor Bartolomé Ruiz, navigating off the coast of Tumbes towards the unknown waters down south, found himself face to face with a mysterious sailing raft manned by no less than twenty indigenous people. Ruiz was in the middle of an expedition of discovery sailing under the orders of Francisco Pizarro and was the first person to confirm the existence of a society with advanced navigation skills when he spotted the Tumbesino’s vessel (inhabitants of the Peruvian city Tumbes) on the horizon. Considered a significant moment in the history of Peru’s “discovery,” it was the first time the Spaniards, who had travelled to these parts of the Pacific coast in pursuit of the legendary and uncountable wealth and riches of the Incan empire, encountered a sailing craft with such characteristics.
According to the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea, the mysterious vessel from Tumbes was the first sailing craft that the Spaniards came across in the Americas. This gives us an idea of how far advanced the Peruvians were in the art of navigation, and was thus accounted for in a brief chronicle from 1528 known today as the Samano-Xerex Narrative. The document, barely five pages of manuscript, which according to Porras, is transcendental since it contains the narrative of how the ship of Bartolomé Ruiz discovered the Incan empire. In Porras’ words, “The description of the small Peruvian vessel immortalizes the astonishment of the moment. The narrator describes the polychrome pottery and textiles of the Incas, with depictions of birds and animals, the scale and the rudder found on the indigenous raft confirmed the advancement of the Peruvian society, far more developed than the rest of the Americas.” [Raúl Porras Barrenechea: Los Cronistas del Perú; 1986].
The initial surprise by Bartolomé Ruiz was quickly replaced by greed. The gold and silver found in possession of the sailors onboard the craft confirmed the existence of the legendary rich empire, which the Spaniards were soon to discover. Bartolomé Ruiz returned to San Juan (present day Colombia) to tell Pizarro and Almagro about his dazzling discovery, and in the end the conquering of Peru was made complete with the capturing of Atahualpa in Cajamarca.
Few characters in the history of the conquest of Peru had such a novelistic life as the one of sailor and narrator Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. He was born in 1532 in Alcalá de Henares and fought for Spain in Flanders and Italy when he was only 18 years old. A few years later, he landed in Peru, accused of having in his possession a magic ink which bewitched young ladies as they read his love letters. Pursued by the inquisition, he made his way to Cusco in 1565 where he recorded a fascinating story, which he later would include in his chronicle “Historia Indica.”
Around 1465, Sarmiento recorded a legend in the Imperial City explained how the Tupac Inca Yupanqui had organized a colossal expedition to a handful of islands west of Peru (present day Polynesia) from which he brought black people, great quantities of gold, a copper throne and a horse’s jaw. The mysterious islands that Tupac Inca Yupanqui came across were called Awachumbi (Fire Belt in Quechua) and Ninachumbi (Weaved Belt). According to Sarmiento, the ancient Peruvians were expert sailors and in his quest to prove the mythical journey of Tupac Inca Yupanqui he persuaded the Spanish Crown to arrange an expedition in search of these mysterious islands. The Spanish governor at the time, Lope García de Castro, wanted to try his luck, but rather than putting Sarmiento in charge of the expedition, he chose a 25-year-old inexperienced sailor named Álvaro de Medaña. A fleet consisting of two ships, one of them carrying Sarmiento, set sail from Callao in pursuit of the mythical Awachumbi and Ninachumbi islands.
After a long and painful journey across the Pacific Ocean they discovered a group of islands close to present day New Zealand, which they named the Solomon Islands. In his journal Sarmiento wrote: “the 30th of November, 1567, two hundred and some leguas (each legua is about three nautical miles) from Lima, the islands of Tupac Inca Yupanqui were discovered, and Medaña did not want to conquer them.”
If this information is accurate, this novelistic character had proven that the Peruvians indeed had a commercial exchange with the islands of Awachumbi and Ninachumbi. Located again centuries later by Thor Heyerdahl, along with the help of additional sources, another Spanish narrator, the priest Miguel Cabello de Balbao, confirmed the exchange that Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa suggested.
Striving to continue the conquering and expansion initiated by his father, Pachacutec, Tupac Inca Yupanqui heard from a group of merchants who had arrived from the west by sailing rafts. They brought with them word of the existence of two islands called Awachumbi and Ninachumbi, where there lived many people with a lot of gold.
Before embarking headlong into this reckless adventure, Tupac Inca Yupanqui went to his favorite sorcerer, Antarqui, to ask for advice. Antarqui used his magic powers to travel in shamanic fashion to the islands, thus confirming their existence. Tupac Inca Yupanqui assembled a large crew of workers, which built a fleet of vessels to undertake the voyage. After months at sea, during which the fleet faced many dangers, Tupac Inca Yupanqui arrived in the islands where he stayed for a year. When returning to his lands, the young prince brought with him exotic plunder to present to Inca Pachacutec in Cusco.
According to historians, Tupac Inca Yupanqui’s voyage took place around 1465, before the arrival of the Spaniards to the continent, and lasted for a year and a half. However, there is a detail to the story that we still have not elaborated on, which are the mysterious merchants that broke the news of the existence of the islands. In the legend they make note of an even older trip to the islands than Tupac Inca Yupanqui’s. According to these unknown merchants these islands were the very same ones Wiracocha traveled two hundred years prior.
The narrative of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa is not the only testimony that suggests possible contact between the ancient coastal settlers of Peru and the Polynesia islands. A long time before, in mythical times, there have been mentions of a white, bearded race of men that reached Peru by sea. According to the Maritime History of Peru, published by the Institute of Historic Maritime Studies of Peru, Wiracocha reached ancient Peru by sea around the year 1150 A.D., in an era when Tiahuanaco no longer was a force to be reckoned with and the Inca did not yet exist. Wiracocha came and was considered a very knowledgeable man. The oldest name that exists for him is Kon Tiki or Illia Tiki. He settled around the Titicaca Lake, as did Manco Cápac, whom later would establish the Incan empire in the name of Inti, the sun god, and in the name of Wiracocha.
Wiracocha was the highest priest, king and god of those legendary white men that left behind the great ruins on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The legend goes that the white population was annihilated in an attack from a warrior named Kari from Coquimbo, who defeated Wiracocha in a battle on one of the Titicaca islands. The majority of the white men perished, but Kon Tiki and his closest underlings fled to the Pacific coast where they escaped by sea, sailing westwards (they traveled either towards the Polynesian islands or up the Peruvian north coast). Later, during the years of the Spanish rule, the indigenous people would refer to the Spaniards as Wiracochas, by association to the white men that many years before had reached the shores of ancient Peru.
The legend, which today is rejected by most historians and anthropologists, still stirs the mind of the restless, and there are still people who ask themselves who those first Wiracochas were. Some suppose that they could have been a group of exploring Vikings, whose navigation skills were unquestionable. Then there are other more farfetched theories that argue that it was none other than Saint Thomas of Aquino and his disciples. Whatever the case, it is interesting to see how the indigenous population chose to refer to the Spaniards as Wiracocha, which suggests that they were considered supreme, supernatural, and near-deity. Same goes for the names of Kon Ticci, Illia Ticci and Pachamac.
In 1947 the Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl, based on the Wiracocha legend, set out to demonstrate that the ancient Peruvians indeed had contact with the Polynesian islands. In order to do so, he built a 14-meter long raft in the port of Callao and embarked on a 4,350 miles long journey that would take him and his small crew three months. Destination: The Tuamotu Archipelago, Polynesia. The objective was to prove that Polynesia was colonized 1,500 years ago by ancient Peruvian seafarers.
Heyerdahl was convinced that there had been an extraordinary social development amongst the indigenous residents. Legend has it they were the product of a race of semi-gods lead by a high-priest prince representing the sun. In Heyerdahl’s mind, these men, today long gone, had formed the governing class. They differed from the native inhabitants by the lightness of their skin, their height, their European-like nose and their billowy beard, and their last citadel in South America had been the plateau encircling Lake Titicaca. They were in the end driven out from their last settlement by the Inca ancestors, but the high priest prince Kon Tiki and a few of his followers managed to escape a terrible slaughter. Finding refuge in the sea, they disappeared over the horizon of the Pacific Ocean.
Heyerdahl’s plan was quite straightforward. He was to sail in the direction of Kon Tiki’s escape route. Perhaps by happenstance, to the west lay the innumerable Polynesian islands. To confirm the prospect of completing such a journey, Heyerdahl built and equipped a replica sailing raft as similar as possible to the rafts the sailors of the past would have captained. For his craft Heyerdahl chose the iconic name of Kon Tiki.
The base was made out of nine tree trunks tied together, each almost 24 inches in diameter. On top of these trunks, Heyerdahl tied nine smaller trunks as crossbeams, and they covered the base with bamboo flooring. In the center of the raft they built a cabin to hold and protect the radio equipment, the fragile meteorological and hydrographic instruments, as well as their personal belongings. In front of the cabin they mounted a large sail, and in the stern they fixed a long steering oar. The crew members during the expedition were included mechanic engineer Herman Watzinger (35), who was in charge of the hydrographic and meteorological observations, navigating officer and photographer Erick Hesselberg (33), Bengt Danielsson (27) was in charge of everything concerning food and water, while Torstein Rabby (29) and Knut Haugland (30) traded turns operating the radio.
On April 28, 1947 the Kon Tiki was towed offshore by a Peruvian navy ship. Once out in open waters, they hoisted the sail with a likeness of Kon Tiki’s head painted on it. Braving innumerable dangers, including the ebb and flow of the currents, hurricane winds blowing in opposite directions, giant waves that threatened to overturn them and huge sharks circling the vessel. All the while they never encountered another boat in the same route they were sailing. The tree trunks of their raft slowly become covered in algae as they cruised the open sea, far away from all commercial routes at the present time.
During the journey, Heyerdahl and his companions reached several conclusions. Any pre-historic vessel that would have ventured too far offshore during a fishing expedition would have inevitably been pulled along by the Peruvian current, formerly known as the Humboldt current, in the direction of the route they themselves were taking. Furthermore, it would have been impossible for these ancient fishermen to starve, since every night flying fish would land upon the deck of Kon Tiki, while the algae covered trunks attracted plenty of edible crabs. In terms of water, the constant tropical rains permitted the crew to gather sufficient quantities of this vital element as well.
After 93 days of sailing, on July 30 the crew caught sight of the coast of Puka Puka, an eastern isle of the Tuamotu island group. Four days later they arrived at the island Amgatu, where they found a village surrounded by giant trees and dozens of Polynesians looking at them in astonishment. Two of the natives paddled out in a canoe and boarded Kon Tiki to hug the Norwegians. The Islanders were the first human beings they had seen in 97 days of hard navigation. Unfortunately, the rough conditions did not allow them to reach shore. After three day of battling with crashing waves, Kon Tiki finally crashed on the Raroia atoll. The crew made it ashore safe and sound, although they were stranded on the isle for four days, surviving on rainwater and fruit before the Polynesians finally found them and brought them in their canoes to an inhabited island.
Shortly after, a ship from the French Navy rescued the Norwegian explorers and brought them to Tahiti. Before leaving the small Polynesian island, the natives baptized Heyerdahl with the new name Varoa Tikaroa (Spirit of Tikaroa). The rest of his companions also received new names inspired by the legendary heroes that were the first to arrive in those islands. The natives were believed to be descendants of Maui Tiki, who arrived to the Polynesian islands by sea from a faraway country in the direction of the rising morning sun.
Having survived this amazing adventure, Heyerdahl edited the footage from the journey to produce a documentary that won an Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1951. A couple of years earlier, in 1948, he also published The Kon Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas. Heyerdahl and his team succeeded in proving that the ancient Peruvian vessels were capable of making the journey to the Polynesian islands. They could also confirm that neither water nor food would have been an issue on such a journey due to the rains and abundance of fish. All the ancient Peruvians needed was a sturdy vessel and expertise in navigating the correct course. The raft Kon Tiki turned out to be strong enough, and the currents ultimately pulled the seafarers in the correct course automatically.
Fifty-nine years later, on April 28, 2006, the raft Tangaroa set sail from the Callao port with the purpose of reaching Tahití. Larger than Kon Tiki, but built with the same ancient technique that Heyerdahl, the Tangaroa used as many as nine guaras (indigenous word for a type of tree) in its construction. Between each of the guara a long plank was submerged through the deck. Running in the same direction as the trunks, and they worked as a rudder and depending on their positioning—fore, center, and rear—the crew had better control of their trajectory. Captained by Bjarne Krekvik, one of the passengers onboard was Olaf Heyerdahl, Thor’s grandson. Peruvian Roberto Sala also participated in the journey. Just over two months at sea, the Tangaroa arrived at Raroia, Tahiti, July 8, 2006.
In The Kon Tiki Expedition, Thor Heyerdahl writes, “Thus, I no longer had any doubt that the white Chieftain-God Tiki, son of the sun, whom according to Incan records was thrown out of Peru into the Pacific Ocean, was the same Chieftain-God Tiki son of the sun who was adored by the inhabitants of the Polynesian Islands and was considered the founder of the Polynesian race. More so, the details of the life of Sol-Tiki in Peru, and the names of ancient places around Lake Titicaca, grew and came to life again in legends told by the natives of the Pacific islands.”
After having seen all the evidence, one has to recognize the validity of the relationship between ancient Peru and ancient Polynesia. The Peruvians had the knowledge and the materials to build vessels of considerable size with great competence, and in the Pacific Ocean there is a current that flows consistently from the coast of Peru towards the Polynesian islands: The Peruvian, or the Humboldt Current. All current theories suggesting ancient Peruvians sailed to Pacific islands have been confirmed through the research of historian José Antonio Del Busto Duthurburu. Finally, if we take into consideration that the Polynesians colonized the Hawaiian Islands and maintained contact with its inhabitants, it is necessary to consider that many of the customs of ancient Peru would reach Hawaii via the Polynesian islands, and amongst these customs would be the art of surfing.
The Hawaiians used different tools to ride and surf waves. Cutting down great trees, they built their famous Polynesian canoes and surfed the waves using wooden boards. Studies have shown that these Polynesian surf crafts are no older than 1,000 or 2,000 years old, while the first documented experiences of surfing a wave, according to the evidence, took place in ancient Peru at least 5,000 years ago. Later, as we suggest in this book, the art of surfing spread from the South American coast to Polynesia.