No one really knows how old surfing is, but it dates back at least to 1767 when Europeans first noted the locals surfing on Tahiti. It is therefore certain that surfing predates European contact in the Pacific.
In Polynesian culture, it is typically believed that the chief and other members of the ruling class had superior wave-riding skills. They would have the best boards made with the best craftmanship. Polynesian culture is spread across large swaths of the Pacific, so it is hard to imagine that ruling elites would always be the best surfers, but such a situation is recorded on Tonga. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV was considered the best surfer of his time.
By the early nineteenth century, missionaries had arrived in much of Polynesia, including Hawaii. As part of their conversion efforts, missionaries typically discouraged traditional customs — a practice that was extended to surfing. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the skills involved in both surfing and in crafting surfboards had become all but extinct.
Surfing began to reappear after a few high-profile publicity stunts by the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington Railroad in 1907. Shortly thereafter, a few surfers gathered at Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the location has been a center for surfing ever since. The sport was then widely popularized by Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku, even becoming established in Australia. The movie Gidget introduced surfing to an even wider audience.
Since then, surfing has enjoyed relatively widespread appeal. The Beach Boys and the 1960s surfing fad, the development of short boards, and high-profile professional surfers such as Kelly Slater are each representative of successive steps in the modern development of surfing.