Cargo Cult

The Gods Must Be Crazy

A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional pre-industrial 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 matériel. 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 behavior that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

The primary association in cargo cults is between the divine nature of ‘cargo’ (manufactured goods) and the advanced, non-native behavior, clothing and equipment of the recipients of the ‘cargo.’ Since the modern manufacturing process is unknown to them, 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. 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. Symbols associated with Christianity and modern Western society tend to be incorporated into their rituals as magical artifacts, for example the use of cross-shaped grave markers.

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 (such as John Frum and Tom Navy), 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. The John Frum cult started before the war, and only became a cargo cult afterwards. The Prince Philip Movement on the island of Tanna, worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

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.

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 unscrupulous individuals.

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 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 planes. 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. Cargo cults are typically 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.

The term ‘cargo cult’ has been used metaphorically to describe an attempt to recreate successful outcomes by replicating circumstances associated with those outcomes, although those circumstances are either unrelated to the causes of outcomes or insufficient to produce them by themselves. In the former case, this is an instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy (‘after this, therefore because of this’). The metaphorical use of ‘cargo cult’ was popularized by physicist Richard Feynman at a 1974 Caltech commencement speech, which later became a chapter in his book ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,’ where he coined the phrase ‘cargo cult science’ to describe activity that had some of the trappings of real science (such as publication in scientific journals) but lacked a basis in honest experimentation. Later the term cargo cult programming developed to describe computer software containing elements that are included because of successful utilization elsewhere, unnecessary for the task at hand.

Novelist Chinua Achebe in his 1984 book ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ criticized what he called the ‘cargo cult mentality’ of the rulers of many developing countries who issued lofty proclamations about the future of their countries but fail to exert the necessary effort to bring about those improvements. Economist Bryan Caplan has referred to Communism as ‘the largest cargo cult the world has ever seen,’ describing the economic strategy of the 20th-century Communist leaders as ‘mimicking a few random characteristics of advanced economies,’ such as the production of steel. American rock critic Robert Duncan used cargo cults as an organizing metaphor for the social dislocations in 1960-1970s America in his 1984 book, ‘The Noise.’

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