The term cargo cult describes any new religious movement that owes its initial impetus to the encounter between a tribal (often hunter-gatherer) society and Western civilization (broadly interpreted), though it is most frequently used in the context of New Guinea and Melanesia. In this context, "cargo" refers to Western manufactured goods, which seem (from the perspective of some hunter-gatherer people) to be constructed, ordered, and delivered via various magical processes. The adherents of cargo cults sometimes maintain that these articles have been created by divine spirits and are intended for the local indigenous people, but that Westerners have unfairly gained control of these objects. In other instances, such as on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, cult members actively worship the Americans who first brought the cargo. In both cases, many of the beliefs and practices particular to these cults focus on the ritualistic performance of "white behaviors," with the assumption that they will cause the gods or ancestors to at last recognize their own and send them cargo. In this way, a characteristic feature of cargo cults is the belief that spiritual agents will, at some future time, bless the believers with material prosperity (which, in turn, will usher in an era of peace and harmony)—a standpoint that gives them a profoundly millenarian flavor.
Given the symbolic richness of the notion, the term "cargo cult" is also used metaphorically in business and science to describe a particular type of causative fallacy—most often describing a situation where belief or effort are misdirected due to a flawed model of causation. For example, Maoism has been referred to as "cargo cult Leninism" and New Zealand's optimistic adoption of liberal economic policies in the 1980s as "cargo cult capitalism."
The first recorded instances of cargo cult activity can be traced to a series of movements founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The earliest of these was the Tuka Movement, which began in Fiji in 1885 and was characterized by the adoption and reinterpretation of (European) Christian tropes. Over the next fifty years, religious activity characterized as cargoist also arose periodically in many parts of the island of New Guinea, including the Taro Cult and the Vailala Madness that arose in Northern Papua New Guinea. Both of these movements were documented by F. E. Williams, one of the first anthropologists to conduct fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, though it is notable that he did not characterize them as "cargoist" (as the term was not invented until the 1940s). In the same 50-year period, missionaries, anthropologists, and non-specialist foreigners described over 40 other Oceanian cults that shared some elements of cargo discourse—whether that element be anti-colonialism, millenarianism, spiritual exaltation of Western material goods, or some combination of the three.
The most prolific period of cargo cult activity occurred during the Second World War (and the years immediately following it). This escalation in cultic practice can be tied to two fundamental causes: first, the Pacific campaign saw vast amounts of war matériel airdropped onto these islands; second, it also led to the deployment of American and Japanese troops into these territories. In both cases, these contact experiences led to drastic changes in the lifestyles of the islanders, many of whom had never seen either foreigners or manufactured goods. Over the course of the war, the islanders often came to rely on mass-produced clothing, medicine, food, and weapons, which arrived to equip soldiers but was often given to native islanders who acted as their guides and hosts. At the same time, misdropped pallets of supplies became treasure troves for scavengers. This newfound source of material prosperity came to an abrupt end in 1945, when the end of the war allowed the soldiers to return home, the airbases to close down, and the "cargo" to cease being shipped.
In the years following the war, the Oceanian islanders, through an amalgamation of traditional and innovative religious practices, sought to develop new religio-cultural systems that would account for the realities of their post-contact lives. As the arrival (and subsequent disappearance) of Western commodities was one of these formative events, many cultic beliefs arose to explore the significance of "cargo." Thus, in an attempt to encourage the delivery of cargo, many groups of islanders ritualistically imitated the practices of foreign soldiers, sailors and airmen. For instance, some islanders cleared valuable arable land in order to construct makeshift airstrips, built elaborate wooden control towers, and carved wooden headphones from wood. These religious structures were then manned by devotees, while others directed the (non-existent) traffic with signal fires. One instance of these beliefs is described in Peter Lawrence's landmark study Road Belong Cargo, where he transcribes a conversation with some New Guinean natives:
Intriguingly, these ritualized attempts to mimic Occidental lifestyles and behaviors were often integrated into existing religious contexts (as with the mention of ancestors in the quotation above). Further, they often developed a somewhat millenarian flavor, preaching of a peaceful future age when economic disparities would be addressed and the "white men" would be driven from their lands. These millenarian expectations were also fueled through the syncretic adoption of Christian theology and eschatology, as demonstrated by New Guinea's Yali cult:
These millenarian expectations sometimes led to ultimately self-destructive behaviors, such as the destruction of food or lodgings, in the expectation that the returning ancestors would provide replacements:
As demonstrated in the previous quotations, cargo cults were not simply responses to Western material possessions. Instead, they emerged as a conscious appraisal of the world following the unavoidable comparisons between the often difficult lives of natives and the affluence of Western interlopers. It was to this end that many cargoist movements attempted to incorporate Western rituals, tropes, and religious symbols, while simultaneously execrating their source:
Over the last sixty years, many of these cults have vanished. Yet, the John Frum cult is still active on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu (as discussed below). Further, the arresting image of the "cargo cult" in action has brought the term into the popular lexicon as an idiom describing any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance.
John Frum (or Jon Frum; John From) is a religious figure, portrayed in the guise of an American World War II serviceman, who is associated with cargo cults on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. He is believed by his adherents to offer wealth and prosperity ("cargo") to those who follow him. In visual depictions, his race is indeterminate: he is sometimes portrayed as black, others as white.
It is not known whether the religion arose spontaneously or was deliberately created, nor is it clear whether an individual named "John Frum" existed in the first place. Indeed, the name is sometimes considered a corruption of the phrase "John from (America)," which the natives could have heard from US GIs during World War II. In support of this linguistic hypothesis is the fact that "Frum" is an extremely rare name in the English-speaking world, appearing only four times in USA telephone directories and not at all in either the 1851 or 1901 censuses of the United Kingdom. There are no records of the John Frum religion before 1940.
The exact origins of the John Frum movement are unknown, though both scholars and indigenous worshipers have forwarded theories. For instance, many people living around Sulphur Bay on Tanna revere a god named Karaperamun who is associated with the extinct volcano Mount Tukosmeru. Some scholars, such as Peter Worsley, suggest that the attributes of this god influenced the development of the John Frum movement. Others credit a native islander named Manehivi who is thought to have began the cult by appearing among people and making promises of houses, clothes, food, and transport, all the while appearing in the guise of John Frum. Regardless of the origin of the cult, the millenarian promise was often the same: the dawn of a new age, in which all white people, including missionaries, would leave the New Hebrides (as they were then known), and the universal access of all native Melanesians to the material wealth which white people enjoyed.
As in the case of the cargo cults described above, the achievement of the millennial age was dependent upon the islanders fulfilling certain conditions. Specifically, they were revive lost cultural practices and abstain from "unhealthy" Western influences:
The movement gained traction in the 1940s when some 300,000 American troops established themselves in Vanuatu. The islanders were impressed both by the egalitarianism of the Americans and their obvious wealth and power. Followers of John Frum built symbolic landing strips to encourage American airplanes to land and bring them "cargo." In 1957, a leader of the John Frum movement, Nakomaha, created the "Tanna Army," a non-violent, ritualistic organization which organized military-style parades, their faces painted in ritual colors, and wearing white t-shirts with the letters "T-A USA" (Tanna Army USA). This parade still takes place every year on February 15.
The power of John Frum appeared to be confirmed by the post-war influx of tourists to the region, who brought with them a degree of material prosperity to the islands. In the late 1970s, John Frum followers opposed the imminent creation of an independent, united nation of Vanuatu. They objected to a centralized government, which they feared would favor Western "modernity" and Christianity, and felt that it would be detrimental to local customs (echoing the foundational cultural conservatism of the movement).
The cult is still active today. The followers believe that John Frum will come back on a February 15 (the year of his return is not known), a date which is observed as "John Frum Day" in Vanuatu. Its continued influence is attested to by the fact that the John Frum movement has its own political party, led by Song Keaspai. On John Frum Day in February 2007, the John Frum Movement celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Chief Isaac Wan, its leader, remains dedicated in his belief in John Frum. He was quoted by the BBC as saying that John Frum was "our God, our Jesus," and would eventually return. 
Today, many historians and anthropologists argue that the term "cargo cult" is a misnomer that describes too wide a variety of phenomena to be of any functional utility. Further, some theorists believe that the very notion of a "cargo cult" implies an explicit projection of Western prejudices upon supposedly "primitive" people:
Even the term "cargo cult" itself was invented as a way of attacking and critiquing its participants. Its first recorded usage, in a 1945 editorial by Norris Bird, seeks to explore the dangers of anti-colonial "flare-ups" among New Guinean natives:
Intriguingly, many modern anthropologists suggest that this fascination has as much to do with Western predilections as with the actual beliefs of the islanders in question. For instance, Ton Otto argues that "cargo" beliefs provoke us to think about our separation of economy (cargo) and religion (cult) as distinct cultural domains, such that interpreting "cargo cults [concerns] also our image of ourselves." Thus, the two perspectives can be summarized as follows:
Regardless of the perceived cultural interplay between the adherents of these cults and those studying them, it suffices to note that modern studies tend to be more critical, reflexive and culturally-sensitive than those conducted in the past. Further, and in spite of these caveats, it must also be acknowledged that the notion of "cargo cult(s)" remains prevalent in both anthropological and popular discourse, and that, as such, it deserves to be elucidated.
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, allowing them to return to their tradition ways of life.
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 the substance of the original.
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.
Similarly, the term cargo cult software engineering has been coined to describe a characteristic of unsuccessful software development organizations that slavishly imitate the working methods of more successful development organizations .
One instance that brought the term into the popular consciousness was in 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 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.
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