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Ceremonial cross of John Frum cargo cult, Tanna island, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), 1967

A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices. Cult members believe that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. Cargo cults developed primarily in remote parts of New Guinea and other Melanesian and Micronesian societies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, beginning with the first significant arrivals of Westerners in the 19th century. Similar behaviors have, however, also appeared elsewhere in the world.

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Over the last sixty-five years, most cargo cults have disappeared. However, the John Frum cult, one of the most widely reported and longest-lived, is still active on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. This cult started before the war, and only became a cargo cult afterwards. A number of editions of the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier from late 1969 report an apparent latter-day cargo cult, but with more traditional practices.

Causes, beliefs and practices

Contacts between members of different cultures can often produce misunderstandings. These misunderstandings are not limited to an isolated society's first contact with the other cultures—a result, for example, of exploration, colonization, missionary efforts or warfare. Often people will have doubts about the fully human nature of those being encountered: outsiders will also have difficulties understanding those from the isolated society. Attempts may be made by both sides to fit the contact into the existing beliefs of the culture, with members of the other culture being assimilated to various non-human roles: spirits, demons, animals. With time, each culture learns that the others are mortal and that their respective material cultures differ in important ways. Disagreements often arise over how parts of this material culture (whether manufactured goods (the "cargo") or handicrafts) are shared. In cargo cults, natives develop rituals that express their disagreements with outsiders who refuse to share cargo on acceptable terms.

Cargo cults tend to appear among people who covet the foreigners' equipment but are unable to obtain it easily through trade or established traditions. Members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintain that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors, and are intended for the local indigenous people, but that the foreigners have unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.[1] Thus, a characteristic feature of cargo cults is the belief that spiritual agents will, at some future time, give much valuable cargo and desirable manufactured products to the cult members.[2]

Given their relative isolation, the cult participants generally have little knowledge of modern manufacturing and are liable to be skeptical about modern explanations.[3] Instead, symbols associated with Christianity and modern Western society tend to be incorporated into their rituals as magical artifacts. Reliance upon cultural traditions may suggest[says who?] that proper rituals are not being followed, especially in a culture that has been altered by colonists and missionaries, but that devising new rituals may result in the fulfillment of their expectations.

Cargo cults thus focus on efforts to overcome what they perceive as the undue influence of the others attracting the goods, by conducting rituals imitating behavior they have observed among the holders of the desired wealth and presuming that their deities and ancestors will, at last, recognize their own people and send the cargo to them instead. Notable examples of cargo cult activity include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices, and dining rooms, as well as the fetishization and attempted construction of Western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers may stage "drills" and "marches" with sticks for rifles and use military-style insignia and national insignia painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers, thereby treating the activities of Western military personnel as rituals to be performed for the purpose of attracting the cargo.

In some instances, such as on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, cult members worship certain Americans, who brought the desired cargo to their island during World War II as part of the supplies used in the war effort, as the spiritual entity who will provide the cargo to them in the future.[4] The Prince Philip Movement, also on the island of Tanna, worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

Early history

The modern history of cargo cults seems to have begun before historical records in the countries of Melanesia, where an indigenous tradition of exchange of goods and objects of wealth was tied to a belief that the ancestors and deities had an influence over these things and would return at some time laden with these objects for the members of the tribes. The focus of cargo cults advanced from materials that arrived with foreigners by canoe, to sailing vessels, freighters, and airplanes.

Discussions of cargo cults usually begin with a series of movements that occurred in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The earliest recorded cargo cult was the Tuka Movement that began in Fiji in 1885. Cargo cults occurred periodically in many parts of the island of New Guinea, including the Taro Cult in northern Papua New Guinea and the Vailala Madness that arose in 1919 and was documented by F. E. Williams, one of the first anthropologists to conduct fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Less dramatic cargo cults have appeared in western New Guinea as well, including the Asmat and Dani areas.

Parkinson (Thirty Years in the South Seas) notes a number of scams occurring around the Tolai areas of New Britain circa 1880, that were cult-like. Tolais used shell money and it was true currency, not merely decorative. Unscrupulous individuals had been observed to set up get-rich-quick schemes to fleece shell money from the masses. The most notable scheme was the Tabu (money) Tree, exactly like a modern-day casino, but with an entry fee. These types of schemes, no doubt widespread, show that scamming was well developed in Melanesian societies before outside contact. The cargo cults found after World War II could well have been nothing more than such deceptions, practiced by a few cunning individuals.

Pacific cults of World War II

The most widely known period of cargo cult activity occurred amongst the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II. A small population of unsophisticated peoples observed, often right in front of their dwellings, the largest war ever fought between two technologically advanced countries. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of supplies and later the Allied forces did likewise.

The vast amounts of materiel that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops on these islands meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen outsiders before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other goods arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders who were their guides and hosts. This was true of the Japanese Army as well, at least initially before relations deteriorated in most regions.

Missionaries and colonial authorities who had been present before World War II were evacuated from combat areas, which deprived the villagers of people who could explain what was going on. At the same time there was little fraternization, or at least exchange of knowledge, between US troops and the Melanesians.


With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches. Interestingly, there are no reports of villagers mimicking the Japanese army.

Ultimately, although these practices did not bring about the return of the airplanes that brought such marvelous cargo during the war, they did have the effect of eradicating most of the religious practices that had existed prior to the war.

Cargo cults typically were created by individual leaders, or strong men in the Melanesian culture, and it is not at all clear if these leaders were sincere, or were simply running scams on gullible populations. The leaders typically held cult rituals well away from established towns and colonial authorities, thus making reliable information about these practices very difficult to acquire.

Other uses of the term

From time to time, the term "cargo cult" is invoked as an English language idiom to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. The error of logic made by the islanders consisted of mistaking a necessary condition for cargo to come flying in, i.e., building airstrips, control towers, etc., for a sufficient condition for cargo to come flying in, thereby reversing the causation. On a lower level, they repeated the same error by, for example, mistaking a necessary condition for building a control tower, i.e., build something that looks like a control tower, for the sufficient condition of building a genuine control tower.

The inception of cargo cults often is defined as being based on a flawed model of causation, being the confusion between the logical concepts of necessary condition and sufficient condition when aiming to obtain a certain result. Based on this definition, the term "cargo cult" also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation as described above. For example, Maoism has been referred to as "cargo cult Marxism" and New Zealand's optimistic adoption of liberal economic policies in the 1980s as "cargo cult capitalism".

The term as an adjective is perhaps best known outside of anthropology because of a speech by physicist Richard Feynman at a Caltech commencement, wherein he referred to "cargo cult science", and which became a chapter in the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. In the speech, Feynman pointed out that cargo cultists create all the appearance of an airport right down to headsets with bamboo "antennas", yet the airplanes do not come. Feynman argued that some researchers often produce studies with all the trappings of real science but which are nonetheless pseudoscience and unworthy of either respect or support.

Popular Russian author Victor Pelevin included detailed description and explanation of cargo cults in his novel Empire V.

See also

  • Culture shock
  • Culture wars
  • Cargo cult programming
  • Cargo cult science
  • Island of the Sequined Love Nun
  • Johnson cult
  • Meet the Natives: USA
  • The Gods Must Be Crazy
  • Operation Christmas Drop


  1. Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974, pg. 133-152
  2. Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974, pg. 133-152
  3. Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974, pg. 133-152
  4. Mercer, Phil (17 February 2007). "Cargo cult lives on in South Pacific". BBC Online. 

Sources and further reading

  • Inglis, Judy. "Cargo Cults: The Problem of Explanation", Oceania vol. xxvii no. 4, 1957.
  • Worsley, Peter. The trumpet shall sound: a study of "cargo" cults in Melanesia, London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957.
  • Read, K. E. A Cargo Situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 14 no. 3, 1958.
  • Lawrence, Peter. Road belong cargo: a study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. Manchester University Press, 1964.
  • Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Trenkenschuh, F. Cargo cult in Asmat: Examples and prospects, in: F. Trenkenschuh (ed.), An Asmat Sketchbook, vol. 2, Hastings, NE: Crosier Missions, 1974.
  • Wagner, Roy. The invention of culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Lindstrom, Lamont. Cargo cult: strange stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
  • Kaplan, Martha. Neither cargo nor cult: ritual politics and the colonial imagination in Fiji. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Jebens, Holger (ed.). Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  • Several pages are devoted to cargo cults in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.
  • A chapter named "Cargo Cult" is in David Attenborough's travel book Journeys to the past: Travels in New Guinea, Madagascar, and the northern territory of Australia, Penguin Books, 1983 (ISBN 0 14 00.64133).
  • Tabani, Marc, Une pirogue pour le Paradis: le culte de John Frum à Tanna (Vanuatu). Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 2008.

External links

Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Cargo cult. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.