The Bizarre History of Cargo Cults

The native Polynesian tribe had occupied these same islands for a centuries. They had maintained the same culture, religion, language, and customs, making no significant leaps in technology as they lived in perfect harmony with the land. All they had ever known were those small islands; in fact, those islands were their known world. Then one day, the tribe spots an object in the sky. It looks like a bird, but it doesn’t flap its wings; it makes the sound of thunder, but there isn’t a cloud in sight; it reflects the light of the sun, but it is not made out of water, nor any other material known to them. The only possibility is that it must be a god.

Imagine how if would feel to be one of those tribesmen and women who were seeing an airplane for the first time ever and you’ll be ready to learn about the fascinating phenomena known as cargo cults.

As alluded to above, there are many native tribes in the world today that have had no significant contact with the modern world within the last century, if ever. These uncontacted tribes continue to have the same culture, technology, and in some cases religion that has been passed down for hundreds and thousands of years. These tribes are most commonly found in the dense rainforests of the southern hemisphere as well as on remote Pacific islands. Well, during the 1930’s and 1940’s, military activity increased in the South Pacific as the United States and the Empire of Japan expanded their spheres of influence. The armies and navies of both sides would occupy many of the islands, temporarily invading tribal space. And this is where things get a little bizarre.

Because these bases were fairly remote, they had to be constantly resupplied by sea and air; ships would regularly make supply drops on the beaches and cargo planes would either land with their goods or drop them with parachutes for the soldiers. The natives, having no understanding of what they were seeing, began to see the cargo as representing wealth. But where could it have come from, if not from their tiny island? The answer was that it was created spiritually. Thus, the belief developed that the cargo was manufactured by their spiritual deities and that it was really meant for them.

After the end of the war, many areas of the South Pacific were abandoned by the modern industrial countries. This led the natives to believe that if they emulated certain actions – say, those of a soldier – then they could attract the cargo. These beliefs soon grew into the religions known as the cargo cults. Although the activities of the cults varied, they usually involved worship of a Westerner who they believed promised to bring them cargo, as well as impersonation of military activities such as marching and drills with wooden “rifles”. Western clothing and symbols have also been adopted by many of the cults; some even bury their dead under wooden crosses.

Today, there are few cargo cults that still exist, but most that do can be found in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. The most famous of these is the “John Frum Cult“, who worship a man who allegedly appeared in the late 1930’s and promised the natives supplies. It is a little sad to think that these natives were basically confused into a fake religion, but at least it only involves acting like a soldier and not killing each other like one!


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