In this chapter we will try to demonstrate the cultural triangle established between ancient Peru, Polynesia and Hawaii that allowed an exchange of practices still evident today. For the purpose of this book, we will mainly focus on the aspects that are related to the art of surfing. We will argue that the traditional practice of Peruvian surfing migrated from our coast to the Polynesian islands, and later spread to Hawaii where the practice was highly refined. In an attempt to track the cultural route that allowed first the Polynesians and later the Hawaiians to practice and develop the art of surfing, whose origin is traced to ancient Peru, we must examine the theories of the ancient relations between Polynesia and Hawaii.
“My migration theory, as such, wasn’t necessarily proven by the success of the Kon Tiki expedition. What we did prove is that the ancient South American rafts possessed qualities still unknown to present-day science and technology, and that the Pacific islands are located well within reach for the pre-historic vessels of Peru. The primitive communities were able to undertake great open-water journeys. The distance itself is not the determining factor when it comes to the migrations by sea, but rather that the weather, the winds and the currents in general remain stable day and night throughout the year. The trade winds and the equatorial current always move in a westward direction due to the rotation of the earth, which has stayed the same since the existence of the world.” — Thor Heyerdahl, The Kon-Tiki Expedition
Nowadays it is generally accepted that the origin of surfing is Polynesia. However, these theories lack the overwhelming evidence that will legitimize them as history of how the art of surfing came to be. Thus, in this chapter we will present the general terms of the theory of Polynesia being the origin of surfing and immediately offer argument to the contrary. We will take into consideration that there has been irrefutable archaeological proof in Peru (ceramics, textiles, friezes, pieces of jewelry, etc.) confirming the practice of this traditional art for at least 5,000 years along our coast. Nothing impedes us from stating, or at least suggesting, that this ancestral practice took place in Peru, maybe even earlier than evidence suggest.
When writing this book, however, we have not wanted to claim the art of surfing to be older than what we can prove with archeological findings. By stating in this book that the art of surfing in Peru is at least 5,000 years old, we do not mean to say that we discard the possibility of said practice being even older. There has yet to be any archeological evidence that irrefutably proves that the totora or tup, and thus the art of surfing, to be older than what we are claiming at present day.
Now, what arguments do the individuals that defend the Polynesian theories present? What archeological proof do they have? And, to sum it up, how valid is the Polynesia theory in comparison with the evidence that we present in this book? Also, even if the arguments of Polynesia being populated for three or four thousand years were true, what sustenance does that give the Polynesia theory when compared to the age of the Peruvian settlement, confirmed to be at least ten thousand years old?
To approach this matter, the most difficult subject in our investigative work, we ask of you, dear reader, to be patient, and let yourself be carried away through the immense labyrinth of islands and archipelagos of Oceania, to be able to summarize the Polynesia theory, and then refute it. This journey is essential to understanding that the true origin of surfing is in Peru, and not in Polynesia as has been assumed until now.
Since we set out to refute the theory claiming Polynesia to be the origin of the art of surfing, we will start with geographically locating the island group of Polynesia, which together with Melanesia and Micronesia makes up the three ethnographic regions of Oceania, besides the continental territories of Australia and New Zealand.
Let us start with Melanesia, a vast archipelago located south of the equatorial line in the western Pacific. From east to west, Melanesia includes Norfolk Island, the present day Republic of Fiji, the Vanuatu Islands (also known as New Hebrides), New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands (named thus in 1568 by the sailor Álvaro de Medaña, on whose ship traveled chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa), the Bismarck and Louisiade archipelagos, the Admiralty Islands and New Guinea.
The name Melanesia can be translated to “The Black Islands,” with its origin in the Greek words melas (black) and nesos (islands), as a result of the dark skinned settlers who migrated to Melanesia in two separate waves. The original inhabitants of Melanesia were the Papuans, possibly related to the aborigines of Australia. They were settlers with Southeast Asian origin and a seafarer culture that arrived four thousand years ago by sea. They settled in the south of New Guinea and the Bismarck archipelago, and colonized the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Present-day Melanesia is characterized by the coexistence of these two different cultures and their respective languages, both belonging to the oriental branch of the Malayo-Polynesian linguistic family.
Micronesia, on the other hand, is the territory of islands located east of the Philippines, mainly north of the equatorial line. This group includes more than two thousand islands, amongst which we find the Federal State of Micronesia, Guam, Nauru, Kiribati, the Northern Marianas, and the Marshall Islands and Palau. The name Micronesia translates into “The Small Islands,” from the Greek origin of the words micro (small) and nesos (islands). DNA analysis has shown that Micronesians differs genetically from Australians, Asians and Polynesians, leaving their genetic origin shrouded in mystery.
Now that we have comfortably navigated through Melanesia and Micronesia, we finally reach the location we are interested in examining: Polynesia. The territory covers the large triangle of islands in the center and south of the Pacific Ocean. The name Polynesia can be loosely translated to “Many Islands,” since it has its origin in the Greek words poli and nesos, meaning “many” and “islands” respectively. It is important to point out that the Hawaiian Islands are located in the upper tip of the Polynesian triangle, while New Zealand and Rapa Nui comprise the base. Other Polynesian islands and island groups include Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, Marquesas Islands, Cook Island, French Polynesia, the Pitcairn Islands and Niue. It is commonly believed that central Polynesia was colonized for the first time three to four thousand years ago by settlers from Melanesia. The migrations from central Polynesia to the more externally located islands are more recent, probably as of year 300 C.E. New Zealand was colonized for the first time around year 1000 C.E. The close linguistic relations between the various present-day Polynesian languages supports the archeological evidence that suggest a relatively recent diffusion of the Polynesian culture.
To continue our analysis, we need to focus for a second on French Polynesia. It was one of these islands (Tuamotu to be precise) to which Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon Tiki arrived, having crossed the open sea from the port at Callao on the Peruvian central coast. French Polynesia is made up of various small island groups. These islands are dispersed over a large area of the southeast Pacific. French Polynesia is divided into five archipelagos: The Society Islands, formed by the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Austral Islands and the Marquesas Islands.
Now that we are oriented geographically in the vast network of islands that lie spread out across the immense Pacific Ocean, we can present the general outlines and the main arguments of the theory of Polynesia being the origin of the art of surfing. To do this, we refer to a summary found in the work entitled Legendary Surfers by American author and researcher Malcolm Gault-Williams. In the chapter, “Surfing’s Origins,” Gault-Williams states that the matter of the origin of the art of surfing is divided into two questions:
1. When was the first time a board was used to surf waves?
2. Who were the first to practice the art of surfing?
To answer the first question, Gault-Williams claims that the first time a wooden board was used to surf waves was in Polynesia three to four thousand years ago. To answer the second question, Gault-Williams declare that the first surfers were the Polynesians, who learned how to catch the power of a wave and glide along with it using a type of “board to surf waves” sometime between year 1,500 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. While his theories are interesting and well delivered, the problem is that Gault-Williams does not provide any archeological proof to scientifically support his theory. His arguments, mainly based on assumptions, are founded on the idea that since the first settlers of Polynesia were excellent navigators by sea, they undoubtedly must have been the first surfers. Gault-Williams made this deduction only because the Polynesians managed to colonize the islands in the Pacific Ocean aboard of the sailing vessels.
It is true that during the era of the great migrations across the Pacific Ocean (4,000 years ago), the Polynesians were excellent navigators and their skill was unmatched across the globe. All this is true, and we will not refute that, however one needs to take into account that these great migrations happened in two great waves, separated by several centuries. The most recent studies indicate that the first migration wave took place between 2000 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E., and as proof to this, interested archeologists have found a special type of pottery called Lapita spread out across the Pacific, from New Caledonia (Melanesia) following a route to the Bismarck archipelago (Melanesia) to arrive, between 1500 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E. in Fiji (Melanesia), Tonga and Samoa, the last two islands located on the border of Polynesian territory. However, the Lapita pottery is not proof enough for one to deduce that during the same time the Polynesians were enjoying the art of surfing, since the pottery shows no images of said practice.
The next migration wave happened between 300 B.C.E. and 1350 C.E. It consisted of well organized expeditions with colonizing intent, transporting men and women from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to the Marquesas Islands in the very heart of Polynesia, bringing with them plants, domestic animals and navigation experts. They undertook these journeys in sturdy canoes, with external floating devices on each side to grant the vessels extra stability. We can not say with certainty what the reasons for them leaving their homes in search of new islands (maybe lack of food, or strong tropical storms), but we can assert that they were determined to settle down on the new islands, since they brought their women with them. Thus, they arrived to the Society Islands (French Polynesia), where they settled down for many centuries to come.
True to that era, the Polynesians kept expanding their Pacific Ocean domains, organizing expeditions of discovery and adventure, which with time had them arriving in Hawaii. For these expeditions they did not bring the women. They were purely out to discover new territories. Generally, they would return to central Polynesia with news of discovered islands and later other inhabitants would take the initiative to journey to, and settle down on, said islands. In this era of island discoveries, Tahiti became the base of the Polynesians since the majority of the expeditions set sail from there. According to an old Hawaiian legend, recollected by the ethnologist Abraham Fornander, the Hawaiian archipelago was discovered by a Polynesian traveler called Hawái´loa. While some stories mention two other probable founders, one Tahitian and one Maori, by the year 800 C.E. all of the habitable islands of the eastern Pacific were considered populated.
“The Polynesians were travelling all over and across the Pacific Ocean, while the Europeans still thought that the world was limited to the Mediterranean coastline,” explains anthropologist Kenneth P. Emmory.
Returning to Malcolm Gault-Williams’ work, he suggests that the art of surfing was born when the ancient Polynesians learned how to ride waves with their canoes with outriggers and pontoons. The ancient Polynesians used the power of the wave to glide with speed across the coral reefs, eventually building wooden boards designed specifically to ride waves for pleasure: “At an undetermined moment, surfing went from being a skill of everyday life, to become a sport.”
Writer and researcher Malcolm Gault-Williams’ theory admirably recreates the nautical feats of the ancient Polynesians, but lacks any description of real need to learn how to surf waves to survive, and thus suggests that the Polynesians simply started to surf one day. Where is the archeological evidence? This kind of supporting data is the only thing that is valid in this case and would confirm what really took place. It is true that the Polynesians were excellent navigators, that much is irrefutable, but to then assume and state that they invented the art of surfing is not possible without scientific proof.
The Phoenicians were excellent navigators, and so were the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Vikings, but do they claim to have invented the art of surfing? In the absence of overwhelming evidence, the Polynesia theory needs to be discarded, especially since there exists archeological evidence that demonstrates the ancient Peruvians need to surf waves in order to survive. The waves performed an extremely important role in the ancient fishermen’s worldview. Furthermore, the tup or caballito de totora fulfills the necessary characteristics (maneuverability and buoyancy) to be declared the first one-man surf craft.
Until the contrary has been proven, today’s Peruvian surfers have the legitimate right to say that they are the heirs to the sport of kings. Since the history (narratives of European chroniclers), the archeology (ancient pieces of pottery, textiles, jewelry and the pre-Hispanic urban monuments), and the scientific expeditions (such as the one of Thor Heyerdahl) manifest it, the evidence is fairly conclusive.