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Cargo cult


A cargo cult is a millenarian movement first described in Melanesia which encompasses a range of practices and occurs in the wake of contact with more technologically advanced societies. The name derives from the belief which began among Melanesians in the late 19th and early 20th century that various ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will result in the appearance of material wealth, particularly highly desirable Western goods (i.e., "cargo"), via Western airplanes.

Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a "vision" (or "myth-dream") of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy ("mana") thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down.

Contact with colonizing groups brought about a considerable transformation in the way indigenous peoples of Melanesia have thought about other societies. Early theories of cargo cults began from the assumption that practitioners simply failed to understand technology, colonization, or capitalist reform; in this model, cargo cults are a misunderstanding of the systems involved in resource distribution and an attempt to acquire such goods in the wake of interrupted trade. However, many of these practitioners actually focus on the importance of sustaining and creating new social relationships, with material relations being secondary.

Since the late twentieth century, alternative theories have arisen. For example, some scholars, such as Kaplan and Lindstrom, focus on Europeans' characterization of these movements as a fascination with manufactured goods and what such a focus says about Western commodity fetishism. Others point to the need to see each movement as reflecting a particularized historical context, even eschewing the term "cargo cult" for them unless there is an attempt to elicit an exchange relationship from Europeans.

Cargo cults are marked by a number of common characteristics, including a "myth-dream" that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements; the expectation of help from the ancestors; charismatic leaders; and lastly, belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods.

The indigenous societies of Melanesia were typically characterized by a "big man" political system in which individuals gained prestige through gift exchanges. The more wealth a man could distribute, the more people in his debt, and the greater his renown. Those who were unable to reciprocate were identified as "rubbish men". Faced, through colonialism, with foreigners with a seemingly unending supply of goods for exchange, indigenous Melanesians experienced "value dominance". That is, they were dominated by others in terms of their own (not the foreign) value system; exchange with foreigners left them feeling like rubbish men.



  • The John Frum cult on Tanna island (Vanuatu)
  • The Tom Navy cult on Tanna island (Vanuatu)
  • The Prince Philip Movement on the island of Tanna, worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
  • The Turaga movement based on Pentecost island (Vanuatu)
  • Yali's cargo cult on Papua New Guinea (Madang-region)
  • The Paliau movement on Papua New Guinea (Manus island)
  • The Peli association on Papua New Guinea
  • The Pomio Kivung on Papua New Guinea
  • Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Inglis, Judy. "Cargo Cults: The Problem of Explanation", Oceania vol. xxvii no. 4, 1957.
  • Jebens, Holger (ed.). Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  • Kaplan, Martha. Neither cargo nor cult: ritual politics and the colonial imagination in Fiji. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Lawrence, Peter. Road belong cargo: a study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. Manchester University Press, 1964.
  • Lindstrom, Lamont. Cargo cult: strange stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
  • Read, K. E. A Cargo Situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 14 no. 3, 1958.
  • 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.
  • Worsley, Peter. The trumpet shall sound: a study of "cargo" cults in Melanesia, London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957.
  • 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. .
  • A Chapter named "The oddest island in Vanuatu" in Paul Theroux's book The Happy Isles Of Oceania pages 267-277 describes Paul's visit to a John Frum village and provides answers about the faith and its practices. Penguin books, 1992.
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