Cargo cult

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The term cargo cult refers to a group of social movements that began in Melanesia in the late nineteenth century and continue today. The basic idea of these movements is that manufactured goods, including canned goods, airplanes, and automobiles, were created by spirits or ancestors of Melanesian people. Europeans, they claimed, had diverted these goods away from their intended recipients and used them themselves. Participants in these movements sought to redirect the flow of 'cargo' back to themselves. Some consider cargo cults to be religious movements, while others have argued that they are political movements protesting against European colonialism. Many specialists argue that the term 'cargo cult' should no longer be used because the Melanesian culture is full of movements designed to bring prosperity from abroad, and so-called cargo cults are simply one example of this more general trend.

The flamboyant activities of cargo cults -- creating bamboo effigies of airfields, tanks, and so on, as well as mimicking military marches -- have captured the western imagination and the term continues to be used in popular writing. Richard Dawkins, for instance, has argued that the rapid rise of cargo cults could be an example of how mainstream religions get started.[1], while Richard Feynmann has criticized bad scientific practice as 'cargo cult science'. More generally, cargo cult is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony takes place but goes unrewarded due to a flawed model of causation. For example, Maoism has been referred to as "cargo cult Leninism" and New Zealand's adoption of liberalism economic policies in the 1980s as "cargo cult capitalism". to be verified


An isolated society's first contact with the outside world can be a shock — often people will first assume that the newcomers are spiritual beings of some kind who possess divine powers. With time, however, it will inevitably become apparent that the outsiders are mortal and that their power comes from their equipment (or cargo). Cargo cults tend to appear among people that covet this 'magical' equipment, but are unable to obtain it easily through trade. Given their relative isolation, the cult participants generally have little knowledge of modern manufacturing and are liable to be sceptical of Western explanations. Instead, symbols they associate with Christianity and modern Western society tend to be incorporated into their rituals as magical artefacts. Across cultural differences and large geographic areas, there have been instances of the movements independently organising.

Famous examples of cargo cult activity include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices and the attempted construction of Western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers may stage 'drills' and 'marches' with twigs for rifles and military-style insignia and 'USA" painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers, treating the activities of Western military personnel as rituals to be performed for the purpose of attracting cargo. The cult members built these items and 'facilities' in the belief that the structures would attract cargo. This perception has reportedly been reinforced by the occasional success of an 'airport' to attract military transport aircraft full of cargo.

Today, many historians and anthropologists argue that the term 'cargo cult' is a misnomer that describes a variety of phenomena. However, the idea has captured the imagination of many people in developed nations, and the term continues to be used today. For this reason, and possibly many others, the cults have been labelled millenarian, in the sense that they hold that a utopian future is imminent or will come about if they perform certain rituals.


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 Papua 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.

The classic period of cargo cult activity, however, was in the years during and after World War II. The vast amounts of war matériel that were airdropped into these islands during the Pacific campaign against the Empire of Japan necessarily meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen Westerners or Japanese before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other useful goods arrived in vast quantities to equip soldiers — and also the islanders who were their guides and hosts. With the end of the war the airbases were abandoned, and 'cargo' was no longer dropped.

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. They 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. The cultists thought that the foreigners had some special connection to their own ancestors, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size mock-ups of aeroplanes out of straw, and created new military style landing strips, hoping to attract more aeroplanes. Ultimately, though these practices did not bring about the return of the god-like aeroplanes that brought such marvellous cargo during the war, they did have the effect of eradicating the religious practices that had existed prior to the war.

The John Frum cult

Over the last seventy-five years most cargo cults have petered out. Yet, the John Frum cult is still active on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu, a nation in the south Pacific. The cultists believe that Frum is a spiritual being who will bestow good fortune on believers; his image originates in the appearance and behaviour of World War II U.S. servicemen stationed on the islanders. No individual of that name has ever been traced, so the existence of this individual in the minds of the cult's followers seems to result from a mix of many influences, including Christian stories of Jesus and John the Baptist. During the 1950s, the naturalist David Attenborough asked their chief whether they were prepared to give up their beliefs now that many years since Frum's last visit had elapsed. The chief, who had encountered Christian missionaries, replied that if Christians were prepared to wait for 2000 years, they could hang on for longer.

Prince Philip movement

See also: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

The Yaohnanen tribe on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu believe that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh - husband of the UK's Queen Elizabeth II - is a divine being, the pale-skinned son of a mountain spirit and brother of John Frum. According to ancient tales, the son travelled over the seas to a distant land, married a powerful lady and would in time return. The villagers had observed the respect accorded to Queen Elizabeth by colonial officials and came to the conclusion that Prince Philip must be the son from their legends. When the cult formed is unclear, but sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. Their beliefs were strengthened by the royal couple's official visit to Vanuatu in 1974 when a few villagers had the opportunity to observe the Prince from afar. At the time the Prince was not aware of the cult but the matter was eventually brought to his attention by John Champion, the British Resident Commissioner in Vanuatu between 1975 and 1978. The Resident Commissioner suggested that the Prince send them a portrait of himself. A signed official photograph was duly dispatched. The villagers responded by sending a traditional nal-nal club. As requested the Prince in return sent them a photograph of himself posing with the weapon. Another photograph was sent in 2000. All three photographs are currently kept by Chief Jack Naiva.[2]

Other instances of cargo cults

A similar cult, the dance of the spirits, arose from contact between Native Americans and the Anglo-American civilization in late nineteenth century. The Paiute prophet Wovoka preached that by dancing in a certain fashion, the ancestors would come back on railways and a new earth would cover the white people. Some Amazonian Indians have carved wood mock-ups of cassette players (gabarora from Portuguese gravadora or Spanish grabadora) which they use to apparently make contact with spirits.

Other uses of the term 'cargo cult'

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 term is perhaps best known 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 aeroplanes don't come. Feynman argued that some scientists often produce studies with all the trappings of real science, but which are nonetheless pseudoscience and unworthy of either respect or support.

The cargo cult has been used as an analogy to describe certain phenomena in the developed world, particularly in the area of business. After any substantial commercial success - whether it is a new model of car, a vacuum cleaner, a toy or a motion picture - there typically arise imitators who produce superficial copies of the original, but with none of its substance.

The term is also used in the world of computer programming as "cargo cult programming", which describes the ritual inclusion of code which may serve no purpose in the program, but is believed to be a workaround for some software bug, or to be otherwise required for reasons unknown to the programmer.[3]

The term cargo cult software engineering has been coined in the field of software engineering to describe a characteristic of unsuccessful software development organisations that slavishly imitate the working methods of more successful development organisations.[4]

Cargo cults in popular culture

The 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy tells the story of how a "gift from the gods" in the form of a Coca-Cola bottle carelessly discarded from a passing aeroplane comes to be rejected, thus presenting a south-western African counter-example to cargo cults. The 1983 comedy movie Luggage of the Gods! explores similar themes.

The 1985 sequel to Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, had an element of cargo cultism. The secondary plot revolves around Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson) ending up at a desert oasis of feral children who are convinced that Max is 'Captain Walker' and is there to take them to 'Tomorrow-morrow Land'. Once they have the pilot that they have dutifully been waiting for years, they enact rituals they think will enable a crashed commercial airliner that is lying in a sand dune to fly again.

The 1997 novel Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore also prominently features a cargo cult.


  1. Dawkins (2007: 234-239).
  2. Squires, Nick. Is Prince Philip an island god?, BBC News, British Broadcasting Corporation, 10 June 2007. Retrieved on 19 October 2013.
  3. [1].
  4. [2].