The riding of waves has likely existed since humans began swimming in the ocean. In this sense, bodysurfing is the oldest type of wave-catching. Standing up on what is now called a surfboard is a relatively recent innovation developed by the Polynesians.The influences for modern surfing can be directly traced to the surfers of pre-contact Hawaii.

The art of surfing, known as heʻe ʻana (heʻe means to surf, and ʻana is the nominilizing particle) in the Hawaiian language, was first discovered by Joseph Banks on the HMS Endeavour during the first voyage of James Cook, during the ship’s stay in Tahiti. Surfing was a central part of ancient Polynesian culture and predates European contact. The chief (Ali’i) was traditionally the most skilled wave rider in the community with the best board made from the best wood. The ruling class had the best beaches and the best boards, and the commoners were not allowed on the same beaches, but they could gain prestige by their ability to ride the surf on their boards.